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Ravens Offseason Guide: Who Stays? Who Goes?

January 16, 2017
After recording an 8-8 season in 2016, the Ravens find themselves in a position they are not accustomed to.

Caught in the morass of mid-table mediocrity, it's unclear which direction the Ravens' arrow is pointing. 

On one hand, the team is blessed with a young, talented nucleus consisting of players such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley; running backs Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon; receivers Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore; linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr; and cornerback Tavon Young.

On the other, the Ravens -- the AFC's oldest team and the league's second-oldest as last season began -- are saddled with plenty of salary cap space devoted to some of their oldest players. Tweleve of next year's 15 biggest cap hits are currently scheduled to go to players aged 30 and older.

Because of the free agency/salary cap nature of the league, the Ravens and the other 31 teams are going to undergo some degree of roster turnover; approximately 15-25 percent of the roster that ended 2016 won't be back next year. 

The Ravens had 51 players under contract after the first week of the new year, with only about $19 million (one of the smallest figures in the league) in cap room available to get to the 90-man offseason limit.

Will the additions made after some subtractions -- retiring receiver Steve Smith Sr. and possibly linebacker Elvis Dumervil and safety Lardarius Webb, among others -- point the team in the right direction?

Here are three noteworthy elements the Ravens face in what should be a most intriguing offseason:

Key Free Agents

The Ravens are dealing with 25 players who are nearing the end of their current contracts; they will expire when the new league year begins March 9.

While that might sound like a daunting number -- taking up roughly half of a typical 53-man active roster -- it's the unrestricted market that garners the most attention. The Ravens have 12 who fit that description.

Here is how the team might prioritize those players:

Keep Them Here: G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Lawrence Guy, FB Kyle Juszczyk, CB Jerraud Powers, T Rick Wagner, NT Brandon Williams

Wagner was cited by head coach John Harbaugh as having his best year in 2016, but the available cap funds might not be enough to retain him and Williams; one of them is sure to be playing elsewhere next season. Ducasse is seen as a journeyman, but he played well at right guard after Marshal Yanda moved himself to the left side. Guy is a blue-collar, no-nonsense tough guy who fits the Raven mold, and Juszczyk is imperative to helping revive the team's run game. Powers dazzled early last season before fading.

Let Them Go: WR Kamar Aiken, S Matt Elam, S Anthony Levine, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, QB Ryan Mallett, WR Steve Smith Sr.

There's no question Smith will leave, as he has already submitted his retirement letter to the league. Aiken, whose catches went down drastically with a healthy Smith around, was outwardly frustrated with the offense and fully intends to test the market. Safety has been a real sore point for the team, with the inability of Elam and Levine to make plays a big reason why. Lewis-Harris didn't see the field enough, and Mallett is hungry to be a starter somewhere else.

Coordinator Quandary 

Many eyebrows went up all over Baltimore Jan. 3 when Harbaugh announced offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg -- the fifth person to fill that role in as many years -- would be retained in 2017.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees' unit sagged toward season's end, but he is also being retained after rumors circulated about his possible retirement. 

There was no speculation about the future of special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jerry Rosburg, but he is also returning after a season that saw his charges continue to be plagued by penalties and a spotty return game, Justin Tucker's near-perfect season notwithstanding.

Mornhinweg was elevated from quarterbacks coach after the season's fifth game, a desultory loss to the Washington Redskins Oct. 9. During the campaign's final 11 games, the Ravens' predictable, pass-heavy offense improved, but rather imperceptibly.

Baltimore averaged just more than a field goal more per game and about 15 yards per contest during its final 11 games, falling short of the 400-point barrier for the 20th time in 21 seasons. 

Mornhinweg has been charged with reviving a running game that, for a second straight season, posted a franchise-record-low number of carries (367). The team seemingly abandoned the run early in many games, and could have turned back to it more often, considering the number of close games in which the Ravens were involved.

Harbaugh is a coach who craves continuity and stability, and a clue came when the Ravens cleaned out their lockers Jan. 2 and quarterback Joe Flacco stated he didn't think any change was going to happen.

In any event, the return of Mornhinweg is bound to be a much-talked-about flashpoint that will carry deep into the season, no matter how well -- or poorly -- the move works out.

Cap Dumps

Besides free agency, another way a roster can and must be altered is through the jettisoning of players who carry a high salary cap number into 2017.

The Ravens are graying in many key areas, and some of that gray carries plenty of green with it. Here are six players most likely to feel the wrath of the salary cap dump (with post-June 1 cut savings in parentheses):

LB Elvis Dumervil ($6 million): Slowed all season by foot and Achilles problems, Dumervil was nowhere near as present and productive as he was earlier in his career, reduced to three sacks in only eight games. He will turn 33 Jan. 19, and the team has already drafted young pass rushers such as Za'Darius Smith, Matt Judon and the injured Bronson Kaufusi to try to get younger at that spot.

WR Mike Wallace ($5.7 million): On a team craving speed and playmaking ability, Wallace provided that early and midway through the season, with a 95-yard catch-and-run score and the longest regular-season scrimmage play in franchise history against Pittsburgh being his biggest highlight. This could be a case where a player is cut and brought back at a lower salary, but at 30 years old, would Wallace be willing to go through that ordeal without casting a longing glance elsewhere?

TE Dennis Pitta ($5.5 million): Pitta's comeback from two hip surgeries is one of the most heartwarming stories in team history. He battled objections from doctors and his own family to get back on the field, and he ended up leading the team with 86 catches. But he averaged only 8.5 yards per catch and scored just twice. The Ravens need more all-around production at the position, especially in the blocking area, as they try to revive their run game. 

S Lardarius Webb ($5.5 million): Webb's transition from corner to safety, a position he played in college, produced mixed results. He tackled well and played in all 16 games, but despite the presence of veteran Eric Weddle next to him, his playmaking skills were practically non-existent. The Ravens need to get younger and faster in the secondary after getting burned by several catch-and-run plays last year.

CB Shareece Wright ($4 million): It's not Wright's fault high school teammate Jimmy Smith incurred back and ankle injuries that kept him out of several key games this year, but Wright could not step up and be the top corner the team needed him to be against the likes of Dez Bryant and other top standouts.

C Jeremy Zuttah ($3.5 million): Zuttah battled valiantly through occasional ankle problems and started all 16 games. But at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he was too light in the lower body and too tall to avoid being beaten to a low point and shoved backward off the ball by opposing nose tackles. The Ravens need a heavier, more stout player in the pivot to avoid having the run plays they crave to get back to being blown up in the backfield.

Joe Platania  has been covering professional football since 1994. 

Issue 229: January 2017