It's clear that coming off a 5-11 season, the Ravens have some tough decisions to make regarding their 2016 roster. To be sure, injuries were a huge part of the story this past season, but there figures to be significant roster turnover after one of the worst seasons in team history. And as always, the salary cap will have a major influence on how the Ravens go about constructing their 2016 roster.
Over the past two weeks, we have been examining each Ravens position group with an eye toward 2016. Who stays? Who goes? Today we look at the linebackers.
Note: For the purpose of this discussion, we will limit the roster to those players on the final 53-man roster and injured reserve. (Here's an explantion of free agency terminology.)
Under contract: Arthur Brown, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley, Zach Orr, Daryl Smith, Za'Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs
Unrestricted free agents: Chris Carter, Albert McClellan, Courtney Upshaw
Restricted free agents: None
Exclusive rights free agents: None
The Ravens had already identified fast edge rushers as one of their primary offseason needs -- and that was before the Broncos Super Bowl run further underscored their value.
The Ravens entered last year with three linebacker starters on the high side of 30 and could do so again if Terrell Suggs (33), Elvis Dumervil (32) and Daryl Smith (33) all return.
Cutting Suggs or Dumervil would saddle the Ravens with a sizeable amount of dead money -- more than $8 million in Suggs' case and almost $5 million in Dumervil's. The Ravens will keep both players, hope they still have enough left in the tank and can show some good young pass rushers the ropes.
Of the three 30-somethings, Daryl Smith would seem to be the most likely to be cut loose. The Ravens would save about $2.6 million against the cap and would be saddled with less than $2 million in dead money. And perhaps more important, the Ravens already have a cheaper successor on board in Zach Orr, who as last season progressed increasingly spelled Smith on passing downs because of his better speed and coverage ability.
Make no mistake, Smith remains a steady, blue-collar player who fits well with the Ravens. He led the Ravens with 121 tackles and had three sacks, starting every game. But when the Ravens begin the tough task of cutting players to free up some cap room, Smith could be one to go.
Courtney Upshaw also could be gone, although the pending free agent isn't likely to haul in the kind of money Pernell McPhee or Paul Kruger did. (Both received five-year deals in the range of $38 million to $40 million.)
Upshaw simply hasn't shown the pass-rush ability that leads to that kind of fat payday -- he has five sacks in four years -- and it's possible he'll find a soft market and will be back. The Ravens still like him as a edge-setter against the run, but they won't set a price point any higher than that, and it's possible another team will. In that case, the Ravens will wish him well and move on.
Ideally, the Ravens will draft a premier edge rusher early in the draft who can learn behind Dumervil and Suggs, which is what they are hoping they have in Za'Darius Smith. He showed flashes as a rookie last year and finished with 5 1/2 sacks.
On the inside, C.J. Mosley remains the anchor, either with the veteran Smith or Orr or someone else alongside him. Mosley wasn't as consistent last year as his Pro Bowl rookie year, but he still had 115 tackles and four sacks.
Two other names to watch are Albert McClellan and Arthur Brown. McClellan is a pending free agent, but he has been a special teams ace for the Ravens who can play any linebacker position in a pinch. Expect the Ravens to bring him back.
As for Brown, will the Ravens keep hoping he'll finally give some return on their investment? Remember, they traded up in the second round to draft Brown, and yet he's hardly been able to get on the field. If Smith goes, Brown might have his best chance yet to show he belongs. Then again, he's had three years to do that and it hasn't happened yet.
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