Baltimore Ravens' NFL free-agent signings 2021: Finally a receiver -- Watkins signs for one year

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.

The Baltimore Ravens head into free agency looking to make additions to get them over their playoff hurdle. The Ravens have reached the postseason in each of Lamar Jackson's three seasons as their starting quarterback, but they haven't advanced to the AFC championship game since 2012. Baltimore's offseason focus is upgrading the supporting cast around Jackson, especially at wide receiver and offensive line. The Ravens' biggest need on defense is at outside linebacker, where four of their top five edge rushers are unrestricted free agents.

Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Baltimore Ravens, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Sammy Watkins, wide receiver

Sammy Watkins signed a one-year deal worth $6 million ($5 million guaranteed)

What it means: Lamar Jackson can breathe a small sigh of relief because the Ravens finally added a free-agent wide receiver. But Watkins does comes across as a consolation prize after JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton both chose to remain with their original teams over coming to Baltimore. Watkins projects as the No. 2 wide receiver behind Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and his size and polished route-running should make him a valuable underneath target for Jackson. When Watkins played for offensive coordinator Greg Roman in Buffalo, one of his most successful routes were hitches. It was essential that Baltimore brought in a veteran presence for a wide receiver group that ranked last in the NFL in receptions (137) and receiving yards (1,729) last season. None of the returning Ravens wide receivers are older than 24. But it’s easy to forget that Watkins is just 27, the same age as Kenny Golladay, this year’s top-rated free-agent wide receiver.

What's the risk: Have you heard about Watkins’ injury history? He’s played only one 16-game season and that was his 2014 rookie year. Over the past six seasons, Watkins has missed a total of 26 games due to calf, ankle, foot and hamstring injuries. He was sidelined for eight games last season for the Chiefs (including two playoff games) because of calf and hamstring issues. His production has also declined, even though he had Patrick Mahomes throwing him the ball the past three seasons. Watkins hasn’t eclipsed 700 yards since 2015, and his yards-per-catch average has decreased in each of the past five seasons.

Kevin Zeitler, guard

Kevin Zeitler signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal ($16 million guaranteed) on Monday.

What it means: The Ravens finally find their replacement at right guard for Marshal Yanda by landing one of the most effective and durable interior blockers over the last decade. Zeitler's mauling style fits the NFL's top rushing attack and his pass blocking upgrades the protection for quarterback Lamar Jackson, which was considered a priority by general manager Eric DeCosta after the 2019 NFL MVP was harassed repeatedly in the playoff loss in Buffalo. The most consistent blocker for the Giants in 2020, Zeitler allowed two sacks and four quarterback pressures last season. He also provides stability at right guard, where Baltimore started three players (Tyre Phillips, Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers) after Yanda retired. This move makes a lot of sense for Baltimore and Zeitler, who returns to the AFC North where he played seven seasons (2012-2018).

What's the risk: The Ravens committed $16 million to a 31-year-old lineman whose skills have begun to slightly diminish. Zeitler's 65.9 grade from Pro Football Focus was tied for 32nd among 80 qualifying guards. Baltimore can find some reassurance that Zeitler has only missed one game in the past six years. But age can affect the most durable players, and the Ravens saw that firsthand last season. Defensive end Calais Campbell was sidelined four games in his first season in Baltimore after making 98 straight starts.

Derek Wolfe, defensive end

Derek Wolfe signed a three-year, $12 million deal on Tuesday.

What it means: What it means: The Ravens retain the starting front from the NFL's No. 7 defense by bringing back Wolfe after his first season in Baltimore. Wolfe's high effort play fit with defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell. The most significant free-agent signing by Baltimore a year ago, Wolfe tied a career high with 51 tackles in 2020.

What's the risk: Wolfe is 31 and is on the downside of his career. His return takes away playing time from Justin Madubuike, who showed flashes of being a starter as a rookie. Wolfe was a disappointment as a pass-rusher last year with a career-worst one sack, which was six fewer than 2019.

Tyus Bowser, linebacker

Tyus Bowser signed a four-year, $22-million deal on Tuesday.

What it means: This was a critical re-signing for the Ravens as far as continuity and versatility after outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue both signed elsewhere at the start of free agency. Bowser, a second-round pick in 2017, has been one of Baltimore's most improved defenders. He's proven to be just as valuable in coverage as in the pass rush. Last season, Bowser was the only linebacker in the league to record at least three sacks and three interceptions.

What's the risk: The Ravens are investing $12 million guaranteed on Bowser's upside. The expectation is he'll play a bigger role than his past four seasons, when he started two games and never played more than 51% of the team's defensive snaps in a season.

Pernell McPhee, linebacker

Pernell McPhee signed a one-year contract on March 12.

What it means: The Ravens retain their most experienced player at outside linebacker, a position where four of out five players were set to hit free agency. Known for his toughness and leadership, McPhee ranked second on the team with 15 quarterback hits and became the best at setting the edge on run defense. As defensive coordinator Don Martindale once said, McPhee is 'the old-school Raven that we need."

What's the risk: McPhee turns 33 by the end of the season, and durability has frequently been an issue. He's missed 23 games over the past five seasons. But McPhee finished strong last season, totaling six tackles in the playoff win in Tennessee.

Chris Board, linebacker

Chris Board signed a one-year deal worth $1.6 million on Monday.

What it means: The Ravens keep one of their top special teams players even though they didn't tender him as a restricted free agent. By signing Board to a less expensive one-year deal, Baltimore saved about $500,000 of cap space. Board has recorded 25 tackles on special teams over the past three seasons. He's also a solid reserve inside linebacker, setting career highs last season in tackles (24) and sacks (2.5).

What's the risk: The risk was not tendering Board and allowing him to become a free agent. But there's no downside on retaining a core special teams player who is a valuable backup. If Board makes a bigger impact, he can make up to $1 million in incentives -- which would exceed his restricted free agent tender. But Baltimore would happily pay to compensate any increased production.

Justin Ellis, defensive tackle

Justin Ellis signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal on March 5.

What it means: The Ravens brought back the 30-year-old Ellis to provide experienced depth at nose tackle behind longtime starter Brandon Williams. Nicknamed "Jelly," Ellis appeared in 13 games and played in 358 snaps last season, filling in when Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell both dealt with injuries.

What's the risk: The Ravens devote a roster spot to a specialized, one-dimensional player. Ellis is an asset on run defense, using his 350 pounds to eat up space on the inside. But he doesn't provide much impact against the pass. The Ravens would likely deactivate him against teams who primarily throw the ball.