<
>

How much will Ravens use free agency to help NFL's best bargain offense?

play
How do Lamar Jackson, Ravens improve in the offseason? (1:23)

Ryan Clark calls for the Ravens to sign better wide receivers in the offseason so the team doesn't have to rely heavily on Lamar Jackson running the ball. (1:23)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- After the season, Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was asked about whether the offense will change philosophically in how much it throws the ball.

"As far as the scheme and all of those types of things, that's the coaching staff, that's the players [and] that's [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman," DeCosta said. "I'm more interested in what time it is more so than how to actually build a watch."

Offensively, the Ravens have had the look of a Rolex at the cost of a Timex. In Lamar Jackson's two full seasons as its starting quarterback, Baltimore has scored an NFL-best 31.2 points per game while committing the league's third-fewest cap dollars to its offense.

Is it finally time for the Ravens to spend in free agency to take the NFL's best bargain offense to the next level? DeCosta projected that Baltimore will have between $15 million to $20 million in cap space in free agency. A chunk of that can go a long way in upgrading the supporting cast for Jackson, providing more experience at wide receiver, offensive line and tight end.

All of the significant free-agent additions Baltimore has made the past two seasons have been at a minimal price and are no longer on the team: running back Mark Ingram (cut), quarterback Robert Griffin III (cut), wide receivers Willie Snead (free agent), Dez Bryant (free agent) and Seth Roberts (free agent) and offensive lineman D.J. Fluker (free agent).

Right now, Baltimore's starting offense is comprised of homegrown players with nine draft picks and two players originally signed as undrafted rookies. This is a reflection of the strong drafts by DeCosta and former GM Ozzie Newsome, but this shouldn't overshadow the need to address offense in free agency.

Baltimore's spending on offense will increase because the Ravens will sign their top young players to second contracts. It started in October when Baltimore struck a five-year, $98.75 million extension with left tackle Ronnie Stanley. It will continue this year when the Ravens are expected to reach long-term deals with Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews, which should make them among the highest paid at their positions.

At this point, only three offensive players rank among the team's top 10 cap hits in 2021: Stanley ($15.25 million), tight end Nick Boyle ($7.83 million) and fullback Patrick Ricard ($3.98 million).

The big money doled out by the Ravens on free agents (and trade acquisitions) have been tilted to defense recently with cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Calais Campbell, pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue and safety Earl Thomas, who has since been cut. Baltimore will need to fill the void at outside linebacker this offseason, whether it's adding a free agent or re-signing someone like Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser or Pernell McPhee, but it's not like last year when the Ravens wanted to revamp their defensive front seven.

The free-agent focus this year for the Ravens should be on offense. So, let's take a look at the positions of need for Baltimore:

Wide receiver: It's tantalizing to think how much Jackson would improve if paired with a free-agent prize like Allen Robinson II or Kenny Golladay. But DeCosta tempered expectations when he said it's not all about getting a No. 1 wide receiver. Pro Football Focus predicted Baltimore would sign second-tier receivers Sammy Watkins and A.J. Green. Whatever the move, the Ravens know they need to do more than they did last year, when their biggest veteran signing at wide receiver was Bryant.

Guard: The Ravens didn't bring in an experienced blocker to replace Marshal Yanda, an eight-time Pro Bowl lineman who retired last year. Baltimore can rectify that this year by signing Joe Thuney, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots who is considered one of the top guard available. Kevin Zeitler, a former first-round pick, could become available if he gets cut by the Giants. If the Ravens don't want to splurge, they can go with Tyre Phillips at guard, but the 2020 third-round pick struggled to stay healthy as a rookie.

Center: Baltimore hasn't spent money at center since Matt Birk retired after the 2012 Super Bowl season, but this position has drawn plenty of attention after the errant snaps of Matt Skura and Patrick Mekari proved costly. Corey Linsley, the top center in free agency, is expected to stay in Green Bay. One intriguing option is the Falcons' Alex Mack, if he doesn't retire. He was drafted in the first round in 2009, when Ravens director of player personnel George Kokinis was the Browns GM.

Tight end: The Ravens should look for another pass-catching tight end behind Andrews. But this feels like a position that the Ravens will address in the middle rounds of the draft. If the price is right, Baltimore can add a low-cost insurance policy in the Colts' Trey Burton or the Cardinals' Dan Arnold.