Baltimore didn’t mortgage their future to add more weapons and reinforce their depth.
Every team in the NFL has one goal heading into each year: to be the last team standing on the final Sunday of the season as Super Bowl champions. There can only be one (shoutout to Highlander) champion, though, and sometimes legit contenders will load up on both veteran and highly-rated rookie talent to make the strongest push they can for a title.
Those teams are typically ones with an ascending young quarterback, still playing on their rookie contract, or an aging veteran still performing at a high level in the twilight of their career. This “Super bowl or bust” mentality often comes at the cost of long-term sustainability. They allocated the majority of their cap to a handful of players instead of spreading the wealth or elected to trade away precious high draft capital to acquire a player from another team.
This offseason, the Baltimore Ravens were able to build a roster that is both well-rounded and deep on both sides of the ball at a significantly discounted rate. General Manager Eric DeCosta built a team that is primed to contend for the Lombardi Trophy by being strategic and patient.
In the last five months, he vastly improved the wide receiver position, upgraded the offensive line, and addressed the pass rush. All three of those were the biggest question marks for the team following their latest shortcoming in the playoffs and were atop his offseason to-do list.
They began with the re-signing of key veteran defenders Tyus Bowser, Derek Wolfe, and Pernell McPhee then created more cap space by extending the contract of veteran tight end Nick Boyle.
Many pundits and fans thought that the Ravens would make a big splash early in unrestricted free agency to bring in a “true No. 1” receiver and/or one of the top interior offensive linemen. Several of the top wideouts that were slated to hit the open market were either franchise tagged or opted to sign modest-to-big deals elsewhere.
Before the new league year even began, DeCosta made his first savvy move by signing veteran lineman Kevin Zeitler to a three-year worth $22.5 million to more effectively fill the void at right guard that was left when Marshall Yanda retired following the 2019 season. The nine-year vet was cut by the New York Giants as a salary cap casualty so bringing him in shortly after his release didn’t affect their precious compensatory pick formula.
The Ravens always want to protect any projected comp pick at all costs, so they rarely sign big-name unrestricted free agents right away. They will often opt to sign a handful of mid-tier veterans to relatively inexpensive deals either after the comp pick deadline has passed or at the expense of a lower round comp pick that would be canceled out by the signing.
After electing not to grossly overpay for the best of what was left on the free-agent market and getting turned down by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton, the Ravens finally added a veteran wideout. They signed Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal worth $6 million during the second wave of free agency.
They laid the groundwork for the eventual additions of offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva and edge rusher Justin Houston when both vets were brought in for workouts. Their patience paid major dividends after they were able to sign both veterans to very team-friendly deals at different times once the comp pick formula deadline passed.
Villanueva came over from the Pittsburgh Steelers on a two-year contract worth $14 million a week after the draft and Houston officially signed his one-year deal worth up to $4 million on Monday after spending the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
$6.3M 2021 cap hit ($13.6M APY)
$13M cap hit ($13M APY)
= $9.93M Ravens cap hit
— Sarah Ellison (@sgellison) July 31, 2021
Instead of getting into a bidding war for Corey Linsley and/or Joe Thuney — who were the top veteran center and guard in free agency this year — and risking a high comp pick(s), they signed a salary cap casualty at guard and slid a player who is still on their rookie contract over one spot.
It’s truly incredible that in an era where to go all-in often means to risk it all, the Ravens were able to do so without endangering the future of the franchise. The way they assembled and fortified a roster that was already rich with talent was an absolute masterstroke of genius.
They are equipped with all the pieces and have the beautiful blend of youth and veteran experience to win their first championship in nearly a decade.
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