By Michael Natelli
Apart from the Baltimore Ravens’ rookie class, there were two players I was particularly excited to watch this year: JK Dobbins and Marcus Peters. As both entered their second full seasons in Baltimore, each seemed poised to have a year that would start to truly etch them into team lore as one of the key cogs of this era of Raven football. Evidently, that’s not going to happen. At least not this year.
As if that weren’t enough, Gus Edwards, L.J. Fort, and Justice Hill are all set to miss the season with injuries as well, and several other key contributors enter the season injured or still working their way back from injury.
It’s enough to make your head spin and your hope wane. But the growing IR list is no excuse for this Ravens team to phone it in and take their eyes off a postseason run. Not only is there still plenty of talent on this loaded roster, but as bumps in the road emerge, Baltimore may have more ways (and ammo) to address injuries and roster needs than ever before.
Eric DeCosta has been just about as effective in the trade and free agency markets as any general manager in the NFL and should stand to capitalize from the wide range of options he has available.
The Free Agent Market
The Baltimore Ravens are a team that went 14-2 in 2019 in part thanks to their ability to get production out of off-the-street free agents like LJ Fort, Josh Bynes, Domata Peko, Justin Ellis, and a rejuvenated Pernell McPhee.
In 2020, it was signings like Trystan Colon-Castillo and Devontae Harris that helped the Ravens stay afloat as they weathered COVID issues and a depleted secondary. Time and time again, the Baltimore front office and coaching staff have made a living turning post-prime veterans and undrafted free agents into solid contributors, and this year’s free-agent market has them well-positioned to do it once again in addressing current and potential roster needs.
At corner, Richard Sherman, Quinton Dunbar, and former Raven Pierre Desir headline a shallow group of options. Sherman obviously offers the most star power and upside, though pending legal troubles make his status for the season somewhat unclear (to say nothing of his less-than-ideal fit in Wink Martindale’s defense).
Desir is interesting because he comes with some level of familiarity with the defense having spent time with Baltimore late last year. Metrics didn’t like his play in limited action with the Ravens, but he was highly graded as recently as 2019 and could return to form given a longer stretch to get comfortable with regular reps.
Dunbar has likely been asked too much of in recent stops and wasn’t up to the task. But at 6’2, the 29-year-old offers the kind of length the Ravens like in corners and could thrive (or at least reasonably contribute) in a more complementary role.
Early to start dealing with injuries:
Perhaps the most unfortunate part about the injuries Baltimore has endured so far is the unknown of what’s still to come. Injuries come up throughout the course of a football season, so there will inevitably be a few roster holes that need to be plugged between now and January. Will the free-agent market be somewhere that gives the pieces the Ravens need to go win a Super Bowl without key players? Probably not. But does it offer savvy veterans that can help the team stay afloat and at least scrap their way to the postseason in a year with a seventh playoff spot? Absolutely.
Mitchell Schwartz and David DeCastro are out there as options along the offensive line. Geno Atkins and Kawann Short are available in the trenches, and Olivier Vernon is out there to rush the passer. John Brown is available to make his second tour through Baltimore if the receivers can’t get healthy, and Trey Burton is there if tight end depth becomes a problem. Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, and Frank Gore are all ready to go if the running back room hasn’t exorcised whatever continues to haunt it yet.
Make your jokes about how those names all sound good as options in Madden 17, but while most are not what they used to be, enough talent is out there in a pinch that injuries at just about any position shouldn’t be the reason the Ravens aren’t a playoff team this year.
The Trade Market:
If DeCosta (understandably) finds the free-agent market to have uninspiring options, he also has more than enough draft capital to fill a need or two via trade without putting the Ravens in a disadvantageous position come April.
Before even factoring in any compensation picks for departing free agents this coming offseason, the Ravens are slated to have 14 picks in their 2022 war chest. While such a loaded draft arsenal will come in handy next offseason with Mark Andrews and likely Lamar Jackson signed to new expensive contracts, it also gives the team more than enough ammo to comfortably part with a pick or two for midseason upgrades.
Whether that means swinging a trade for a corner Jacksonville’s C.J. Henderson or Denver’s Bryce Callahan, or star chasing at other spots around the roster, there’s no reason that the Week 1 roster has to be as good as it’s going to get in Baltimore this year. It may take until close to the Trade Deadline, but one would have to think DeCosta is already exploring options to make sure John Harbaugh and company can still be successful this year.
The Ravens are not a team that looks to make excuses. They say the right things because they believe the right things. “Next man up” is not just good coach speak in Baltimore, it’s a culture, and fans should expect nothing short of that attitude and that approach regardless of what the IR list looks like.
Even as more challenges emerge, the Ravens should be more than equipped enough to weather the storms that come their way and charge forward towards another postseason run.