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Ravens Insider: As Ravens rebuild on the fly, GM Eric DeCosta faces his most important offseason yet

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The NFL offseason barely sleeps, if it does at all. For Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta, though, there’s more keeping him awake these days than most.

With more than 20 pending unrestricted free agents, eight draft picks and uncertainty at nearly every position group other than tight end and quarterback, the 52-year-old is faced with his most challenging offseason in what will be his sixth year as the team’s chief personnel decision-maker.

One can argue that last offseason, when quarterback Lamar Jackson asked to be traded before eventually agreeing to a long-term extension, was more paramount. Or that 2019, his first at the helm, was more pressure-filled after taking over for Ozzie Newsome and subsequently allowing Pro Bowl linebackers C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith to walk in free agency. But this is the most upheaval the organization has had in years, or perhaps ever.

How DeCosta navigates it will play a large part in the Ravens’ success not just next season, but for years to come for a team that got within a game of the Super Bowl and aspires to be a championship contender yearly.

“We try to build this thing out so that we don’t have windows opening and closing, and that’s kind of been the Ravens’ mindset — that we want to be a competitive, good team every single year,” DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “That’s what we aspire to, and I think we have a lot of the types of people in that locker room still, and we’ll [continue] to have those types of guys to put us in a position to win every single year.”

Two of those players DeCosta has already decided on. Veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor signed a one-year extension and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike received the nonexclusive franchise tag after registering 13 sacks to lead all interior defensive linemen and anchoring the middle of Baltimore’s pass and run defense.

But those are only the first couple of moves in what will be a busy and delicate juggling act over the next couple of months.

Tagging Madubuike will cost the Ravens just over $22.1 million for 2024 (unless a long-term extension is worked out by July 15), which puts Baltimore roughly $9 million over the league’s increased salary cap of $255.4 million. That means the Ravens will have to restructure some deals and/or cut players to be cap-compliant by the start of the new league year Wednesday. This can be done several ways, including by converting Jackson’s salary into a prorated signing bonus, which would reduce his cap hit by $11.1 million, according to Over The Cap. Reworking the contracts of inside linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, safety Marcus Williams and tight end Mark Andrews would create even more room.

But that would also mean pushing even more money into future years, something that comes with its own problems down the line.

Then there’s free agency, which begins in earnest Monday when the league’s legal tampering period opens, before the official start to the frenzy two days later at 4 p.m.

The Cowboys Tony Pollard breaks free from the Chargers Michael Davis for a large gain during the fourth quarter at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 20-17 in a National Football League (NFL) game. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Tony Pollard, pictured last season with the Cowboys, is among the free agent running backs the Ravens could be interested in. (Will Lester/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

Given Baltimore’s salary cap limitations, the need to bring back at least some of its own free agents and history, the Ravens don’t figure to be exorbitant spenders on the open market by DeCosta’s own admission. Still, it’s possible they could sign a veteran big-name running back such as Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry or Tony Pollard, among others, at what what would likely not be a relatively big dollar amount, given the devaluing of the position and the glut of available backs.

“It’s a little bit of a saturated market,” New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said last week. “There are some guys at different ages that have had success, there’s some older guys that have had some success. So, it’s a diverse group.”

It also includes a familiar face: J.K. Dobbins.

Dobbins has appeared in just nine games the past two seasons because of knee and Achilles tendon injuries, the latter of which ended his season in the 2023 opener. On one hand, he’s still just 25 years old, knows the offense and provides the comfort of familiarity. On the other, he has missed more games than he has played, held out of some of training camp last year over a lack of a contract extension and he might be interested in a reset somewhere else.

Whatever direction the Ravens go, they will add running backs, through free agency and the draft, with only two backs (Justice Hill and Keaton Mitchell) on the roster under contract.

Several other positions need tending to as well, including offensive line, outside linebacker and cornerback.

With guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson both eligible for free agency and injury and age questions about tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses, DeCosta will have to make some tough decisions. The Ravens had one of the NFL’s better offensive lines last season but the unit had more than a few struggles, be it penalties or blown-block rate in pass protection and run blocking. Stanley was the biggest culprit in both last season, and with a $26.2 million cap hit for 2024 (or $17.8 million in dead money if they release him), he’s become something of an albatross.

Coach John Harbaugh made it clear last week that “rebuilding” the offensive line will be the Ravens’ biggest priority this offseason, and that could start with drafting a starting-caliber tackle in the draft as well as Stanley taking a pay cut and Moses ($6.96 million cap hit with $1.46 million in dead money) being cut.

But DeCosta will also have to figure out what to do about the team’s pass rushers, which will be vital if new defensive coordinator Zach Orr wants to build upon predecessor Mike Macdonald’s scheme.

Jadeveon Clowney, who had nine sacks last season, and Kyle Van Noy, who had 9 1/2, are both free agents. Odafe Oweh was inconsistent while matching his career high with five sacks, while there are question marks over David Ojabo, who missed nearly all of the past two seasons with a torn ACL and torn Achilles. Then there’s Tyus Bowser, who played just nine games in 2022 and missed all of last season with a mysterious knee injury after being expected to be available at the start of the season.

If the Ravens are going to generate the type of pressure they enjoyed while leading the NFL in sacks last season, bringing back some of that group while finding younger talent that can step in sooner rather than later will be important.

Clowney, if he’s willing to take a little less money for the sake of happiness, would make the most sense between him and Van Noy. At 31, he’s two years younger than Van Noy, is a better edge setter against the run and showed he still has enough juice with career highs in pressure rate, pass-rush win rate and total pressures.

As for cornerback, DeCosta is fond of saying the Ravens can never have too many, an edict that played out with a slew of injuries in 2023, and that figures to be a focus in next month’s draft and in free agency.

For one, the Ravens have a handful of corners who are due to hit free agency, including veterans Arthur Maulet and Ronald Darby. Both performed well last season, fit well in the locker room as well as schematically and could perhaps be back at a reasonable price. For another, it’s not too soon to start thinking about Marlon Humphrey’s future after injuries limited the 27-year-old to 10 games last season in which he had 26 tackles, five passes defensed and one interception. His contract was restructured to create cap space in September, but he’s currently slated to have a huge cap hit this season of $22.8 million (third-highest at the position), $25.1 million in 2025 and $22.9 million in 2026.

Lastly, DeCosta will also have to make decisions on fifth-year options for Oweh and wide receiver Rashod Bateman by May 2.

The extra year for Bateman would cost $14.34 million, while Oweh would cost $13.25 million. Harbaugh said last week he thinks Bateman will have a big year, but the 24-year-old has struggled with injuries and has yet to fully click with Jackson, who missed him several times this season, especially on deep passes. If Baltimore picks up either option, Oweh’s would seem more likely.

Still, for all the uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead, DeCosta has been mostly effective in negotiating plans big and small. And the Ravens have made the playoffs four times since 2019, including reaching this year’s AFC championship game.

“As hard as it is, when I really step back and look at the season, I would say it was a resounding success in many, many different ways,” he said. “The locker room was crazy good [with] the personalities, the love that I think was felt every single day, the attitude that these guys brought. That gives me great hope that our future is very bright.”

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