Lewis, Suggs Essential To Ravens’ Offseason

By Martin Steger

At the end of this season, Ravens linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott will all become free agents. They will all want substantial contracts, and rightly so. It would be a huge boon, almost a coup, to keep all three; however, Lewis and Suggs are the most important pieces to re-sign.

Though he is 33 years old, Lewis is as essential to the Ravens’ immediate future as any player on the roster, or any coach in the office for that matter. As for the present, Lewis is still an elite player in his 13th season. Despite his age, Lewis remains the Ravens’ leading tackler. (It’s true that Baltimore’s defensive scheme caters to his strengths, but it would be stupid for it not to.) Just like the past 12 seasons, running backs still dread suiting up to play the Ravens, largely thanks to Lewis. And though he has drawn a few pass interference penalties in man coverage this season, Lewis is still devastating in zone coverage, when he can use his instincts to break on a ball—or, more entertaining still, break on a receiver and level him as the ball gets there.

But new contracts are all about the future, and Lewis has value there as well. The Ravens are an exceedingly young team, especially on offense. Lewis’ leadership skills are invaluable to the “new” offensive squad, even though he is a defender. Already he has encouraged rookies Ray Rice and Joe Flacco with his presence on the sideline. Lewis’ impact on the defense’s morale is obvious—Ravens defenders never take a play off, and that energy begins with Lewis. As the Ravens continue to transition into their new identity, Lewis’ alternatively calming and energizing influence will be a huge help. His high production and intense leadership are irreplaceable.

Just as Lewis is essential to the middle of the Ravens’ defense, Suggs is vital to the edge of it. Though he had an off year last season, Suggs, 26, is just entering the prime of his career and is enjoying a successful 2008 campaign. Through nine games, he has already equaled his sack total from last season while adding a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. Not only has Suggs returned to form as a great edge rusher, but he has also developed nicely into a dominant screen defender. He has become very adept at containing and disrupting plays on his side of the field.

Suggs should enjoy great production for many more years, and though he will be expensive, the Ravens need to lock him up. Aside from Trevor Pryce—who is getting up there in age—Baltimore does not have an established pass rusher of Suggs’ caliber. Antwan Barnes and Jameel McClain have shown flashes of promise, yes, but it would be harmful to let an outside force like Suggs slip away. Sign him to a new deal, and he will anchor the pass rush for years to come.

Scott, the third member of the free-agent-to-be trio, is also in the prime of his career. The outspoken linebacker is an excellent player and a valuable component of Rex Ryan’s defense. He’s extremely durable as well. Re-signing him on top of the other two would be incredibly good news for this defense; however, the Ravens cannot afford to do that at the expense of losing Suggs or Lewis because of their value to the team. Scott certainly deserves to get paid wherever he lands, but the Ravens have shown the ability to cultivate new linebackers…and Scott’s replacement wouldn’t need elite edge-rushing skills to step in, as is the case with Suggs.

Again, Scott is a great player and fits well in the Ravens’ scheme. Re-signing him would be great, but prioritizing him over Suggs or Lewis would be a mistake. Hopefully for Baltimore, Ozzie Newsome can pull some of his magic and keep all three.