The Ravens made two decisions March 5 that could dramatically alter the look of their defense and their team in 2019. First, they opted against using the franchise tag on linebacker C.J. Mosley, which greatly increases the likelihood that the four-time Pro Bowl pick hits free agency next week. A few hours later, the Ravens released Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle.
Potentially losing those two players -- and to be clear, Mosley isn't gone yet, and the Ravens still hope to re-sign him -- underscores a key fact heading into 2019: the Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense could be decimated this offseason, and that could put much more pressure on quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' offense.
The Ravens' defense was the driving force behind their 10-6 record and AFC North title, ranking No. 1 overall, No. 4 against the rush and No. 5 against the pass. The unit benefited greatly from returning essentially intact from the year before and seemed invigorated by the schemes of new defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale.
By extension, that benefited Jackson, who didn't need to do too much as he guided the Ravens' offense over the second half of the season.
But now the Ravens are staring at a potential drastic overhaul on defense. In addition to Weddle and Mosley, other potential losses via free agency include linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith and defensive end Brent Urban. Cornerback Jimmy Smith and his team-high $15.8 million cap figure is a potential cap casualty as well. Even if one or two of these players return, the Ravens are facing the loss of nearly half of their starting defense.
All of that ratchets up the pressure on Jackson and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman as well as general manager Eric DeCosta, who has to assess how to allocate resources.
For all the due credit given to the Ravens for reinventing their offense midseason last year once Jackson replaced Joe Flacco, their run-first, ground-and-pound approach was destined to play games in the teens and 20s. That works when the rested defense can stop opponents, create (and score off of) turnovers and limit possessions. Hence the 20-12 slog against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or the big 22-10 win at the Los Angeles Chargers.
But if the Ravens lose half of their defense, are they going to hold opponents to fewer than 18 points a game, as they did this past year? The Ravens allowed 17.9 points per game, the second-fewest in the league. If so, it will be because other players emerged, or key free agent acquisitions stepped in. (There are reports the Ravens will make a push for safety Tyrann Mathieu, who happened to play with Tony Jefferson in Arizona.)
More likely, though, the Ravens' offense is going to have less margin for error and will need to be more productive this coming season. In Jackson's seven starts, the Ravens topped 30 points just once, a 34-17 win against the Oakland Raiders, and that included touchdowns by the special teams and the defense.
Roman and the Ravens have acknowledged they are rebuilding their offense "from the ground up" this offseason, which suggests they will deviate at least somewhat from the run-heavy approach of last year, although Roman's schemes, dating to his time with Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, have often been built around a strong run game and a dual-threat quarterback.
The Ravens are counting on Jackson's improvement as a passer to be a key development in 2019, and it will be up to DeCosta to surround Jackson with talent. As it stands now, the Ravens are staring at another rebuild at wide receiver, with Michael Crabtree gone and John Brown likely to depart as a free agent, and with the potential loss of top tight end Nick Boyle. They also need another running back and would like to shore up the offensive line.
It's a delicate balancing act for DeCosta, trying to bolster the offense without sacrificing too much of this team's defensive identity and strength. The extent to which he succeeds will dictate this team's fate in 2019.