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Ravens Insider: Five things we learned from the Ravens’ first week of free agency


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The Ravens knew they were in for pain when the NFL’s legal tampering window opened Monday. They did not have the money to retain all the players who helped them clinch the AFC’s best record last season. They would have to make difficult choices.

After three frenzied days, they were down 11 players, all of them either starters, key reserves or special teams stalwarts. They were also up a King, aka Derrick Henry, the mighty running back who tormented the Ravens in his years as a Tennessee Titan.

They still have much work to do before their 2024 roster is set, but here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ first week in free agency.

In Derrick Henry, the Ravens signed the running back they wanted, not the one the market yielded.

When Henry strode into the team auditorium Thursday in a purple suit and black shirt, it was the culmination of a five-month quest. The Ravens had tried to trade for him before last year’s Oct. 31 deadline only to have the Titans pull back at the last minute. There were a dozen quality running backs available when the tampering window opened, and some analysts thought Eric DeCosta might wait for a bargain, whichever player that might be, to fall his way.

Instead, teams snapped them up as if it were 6 a.m. on Black Friday, with the Philadelphia Eagles dropping $37.7 million on Saquon Barkley — younger, quicker, less durable than Henry — and others teams dumping established starters to get in on the hunt.

The Ravens did not move that first day, and by the next morning, it was Henry or bust for them. They were fine with that. Henry, who had stiff-armed and sprinted through their defense in a series of heated Baltimore-Tennessee matchups, was the runner they prized, and he considered it a “no-brainer” to join up with Lamar Jackson.

“Yeah, I had a good indication,” DeCosta said when asked whether this was the plan all along. “I thought there was a reasonable chance we could get a trade done. It didn’t work out. It was disappointing. But again, you evaluate the tape, you watch the player, you see the history of the player, you talk to the people who’ve been around the player, and it made all the sense in the world for us to target Derrick.”

There are reasons to wonder about Henry’s schematic fit in the Ravens’ offense. Most of his carries in Tennessee came from under-center handoffs as opposed to the shotgun looks and run-pass options favored by Ravens coordinator Todd Monken. But Henry’s efficiency in limited samples of those scenarios was excellent, and he made it clear Thursday he’s eager to adapt to whatever his new team asks of him.

Monken’s entire philosophy is based on keeping opponents off-balance, and the contrast between Jackson’s style and Henry’s will give him powerful tools in that regard. Henry has to be salivating at the prospect of crashing through lighter boxes with more space to rev up.

“Game planning-wise, he’s going to give us a lot of options,” a beaming John Harbaugh said.

Skeptics will also wonder whether Henry’s best days are behind because he turned 30 in January and has carried the ball at least 280 times in four of the past five years. The pro game grinds down running backs even faster than it does other players, and we might not see the Henry of 2019 and 2020. But he remained formidable last season, averaging 3.32 yards after contact in a Titans offense that couldn’t lean on any other playmaker of Henry’s caliber.

“Tell them to keep watching,” he said when asked about the age-related doubts.

DeCosta believes Henry’s the rare athlete who will defy norms: “He’s kind of a unicorn to be honest, with his combination of speed, power and durability.”

The Ravens are a contender making what amounts to a one-year bet on the greatest running back of his generation. The true test will come in January, when memories of the Ravens’ vanishing run game from their AFC championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs will be front and center. Is Henry the man to change that narrative? Let’s just say he was the best candidate available to the Ravens this March.

Baltimore Ravens DT Justin Madubuike is flanked by defensive coordinator Zach Orr, left and Eric DeCosta, executive vice president and general manager during an announcement about the contract agreement with the defensive tackle. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)
Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike is flanked by defensive coordinator Zach Orr, left, and general manager Eric DeCosta. The Ravens signed Madubuike to a four-year, $98 million extension. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

The Ravens handled their most important piece of business before the market opened.

The Henry signing quickly eclipsed the pricier plunge the Ravens took at the end of last week, when they signed defensive tackle Justin Madubuike to a four-year, $98 million extension, but it’s the Madubuike deal that will shape the franchise for longer.

DeCosta prioritizes keeping his homegrown stars, just as his predecessor and mentor, Ozzie Newsome, taught him. But he knew he could not pay Madubuike and Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Geno Stone, who climbed from the practice squad to a seven-interception breakout in 2023. He would have to make a choice.

Madubuike largely made it for him, consolidating steady improvements from his first three seasons into a magnificent 2023 star turn. His 13 sacks and 33 quarterback hits led the team, and he was an every-week force for the first time in his career, using his rare blend of quickness and power to wreak havoc from every spot on the defensive line.

At age 26, Madubuike could grow into the team’s greatest pass rusher since Terrell Suggs, and that level of production is much rarer from an interior lineman than from an edge defender. He was the player the Ravens had to retain, and they were prepared to use the franchise tag to keep him in Baltimore through 2024.

Fortunately for them, he wanted to be here, agreeing to a deal that would not have topped the market at his position before the tampering window opened. By signing an extension instead of moving forward under the tag, Madubuike gave DeCosta greater financial flexibility to address other needs. On his end, he locked up life-altering financial security as the well-earned prize for his brilliant season.

It was the epitome of a win-win for player and team three days before the free agent frenzy kicked off.

The Ravens are steering into their offensive line rebuild.

Harbaugh and DeCosta foreshadowed the changes coming on their offensive line during their season-ending news conference, and they have now officially dispensed with any notion that they might get the band back together for one more season.

First, they let a Feb. 19 soft deadline pass without extending guard Kevin Zeitler, their most reliable blocker over the past three seasons. Shortly after the tampering window, they waved goodbye to their other starting guard, John Simpson, who revived his career last season. Then, in a move that seemed to surprise many fans, they traded right tackle Morgan Moses to the New York Jets, saving about $5 million and improving their draft capital in the bargain.

Only left tackle Ronnie Stanley (who restructured his deal) and center Tyler Linderbaum are certain to be back as starters come September, though familiar faces Patrick Mekari, Ben Cleveland and Daniel Faalele could all contend for snaps along with 2023 draft pick Andrew Vorhees, who essentially redshirted last season as he recovered from a torn ACL.

The real takeaway is that DeCosta sees this as the right year to rebuild one of the team’s core units through a draft that’s considered one of the richest in recent memory for offensive linemen. Whether they use the No. 30 overall pick on a replacement for Moses or look stock up in later rounds, there’s little question they’ll look to “augment the roster with good, young, cheap, talented football players,” as DeCosta put it Thursday.

Is there risk in this approach for a team that expects to play deep into January led by one of the league’s great quarterbacks? For sure.

But the Ravens have always trusted their ability to solve problems through the draft, and if they believe the 34-year-old Zeitler and the 33-year-old Moses will struggle to maintain peak form because of knee and shoulder injuries, respectively, better to move on a year early than a year late.

Expect DeCosta to add at least one experienced lineman to start or compete for snaps, perhaps after the draft, when he has a fuller grip on the team’s assets.

Wherever the talent infusion comes from, no Ravens position group will be more scrutinized come training camp.

Baltimore Ravens Odell Beckham Jr. and Patrick Queen hug following the Ravens loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Patrick Queen hug after a loss to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. Both are headed elsewhere after Beckham was released and Queen signed with the Steelers. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

Patrick Queen’s market did not develop the way we anticipated.

Queen’s departure was expected. He was playing on borrowed time in Baltimore from the moment the Ravens signed his partner, Roquan Smith, to a five-year, $100 million extension in January 2023. As much as the Ravens depended on the pair and valued Queen’s fiery style, they were never likely to commit $15 million a year to their No. 2 inside linebacker. They drafted Trenton Simpson last spring as a hedge against losing Queen.

Nonetheless, they probably expected the 24-year-old Queen to earn a larger reward than the three-year, $41 million deal he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which really amounts to a team-friendly two-year deal.

It’s at least a modest bummer for a stand-up character who was visibly moved by making the Pro Bowl after he endured sharp criticism during his first two seasons out of LSU. Smith was the vocal leader of a superb defense, but Queen was right beside him, playing through pain and loudly proclaiming that the Ravens feared no one. He never dodged accountability for a poor game or failed to shower praise on a teammate.

Why wasn’t there more fervent interest in a young star coming off his best season, especially with three former Ravens assistants running defenses in other NFL cities?

Most likely because there’s lingering skepticism that Queen can thrive as the shot caller at the heart of a defense without Smith as his senior partner. He’ll have his chance to put the lie to that narrative in Pittsburgh, probably the last place Ravens fans wanted to see him land.

It’s a lot to ask a Baltimore fan to root for a Steeler, but Queen earned our best wishes.

The Ravens have plenty to do and created the wiggle room to operate.

DeCosta acknowledged the bittersweetness of a week in which the Ravens added Henry and kept Madubuike but said farewell to so many players who helped them to a glorious 2023. The sheer volume of loss leaves him with a ton of work to piece together his 2024 roster.

We discussed the offensive line and Queen, but with Stone and reserve cornerback Ronald Darby out the door, DeCosta will need to fortify a secondary that’s long on front-line talent but lacking the depth that made it special last season.

The Ravens led the league in sacks last year, and Madubuike played the biggest part in that, but right behind him were veteran edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy, both of whom are free agents. The Ravens would like to bring Clowney back but could be outspent for his services. They’ll hope that 2021 first-round pick Odafe Oweh breaks out in 2024 the way Madubuike did last year and that 2022 second-round pick David Ojabo finally enjoys a healthy season. But they need more talent on the edges.

They’re happy with Jackson’s targets but won’t have wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who gave everything they could have asked for off the field and played decently in a modest role on it. Even with Henry in the fold, they need another running back as they wait for Keaton Mitchell to return from knee surgery.

The Ravens made budget trims to duck under the salary cap when the league year opened Wednesday, but some of their moves — the Moses trade, especially — were designed to give DeCosta wiggle room going forward. They could turn to restructures, with Jackson’s $260 million deal first on the list, to free up more spending power.

That doesn’t mean they’ll splurge on one player in the near term. Remember, they did a lot of their best building in August and September last year, adding Clowney, Van Noy, Darby and cornerback Arthur Maulet to a defense that would depend heavily on all four.

This puzzle is not meant to make complete sense on the third weekend in March.

“As a wise man once said, we don’t play games until September,” DeCosta said. “We’ll be ready.”

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