If Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta had needed any further convincing that Roquan Smith was deserving of a big-money deal, the inside linebacker saved perhaps his most compelling argument for Sunday’s trip to Cincinnati.
In only his ninth game with the Ravens, Smith, 25, embodied all that the franchise and its fan base have come to revere about its defensive leaders. He had a season-high-tying 16 tackles in a 27-16 loss, helping hold an explosive Bengals attack to just 257 yards of total offense and 4.0 yards per play. He irked Cincinnati players and hyped up Ravens teammates with exuberant celebrations. And he toed the party line afterward, offering little bulletin-board material ahead of Sunday’s AFC wild-card round rematch.
“He doesn’t worry about what people think; he doesn’t care,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “He wants to do the things that are required to be a great player and to be a great unit and then to impact your team. That’s what he’s all about, 100%. That’s what I love about him. He’s one of the top guys I’ve ever seen that way, and I think that does always impact everybody as a leader, for sure. I want all of our guys to lead that way.”
Smith’s contributions to the Ravens’ defense — ranked 15th in adjusted efficiency before he arrived in Week 9, according to Football Outsiders, and third afterward — did not go unnoticed. On Tuesday, he agreed in principle to a blockbuster contract extension, a source confirmed. Smith’s reported five-year, $100 million deal would be the richest in NFL history for an off-ball linebacker.
Here’s a look at the deal’s consequences in Baltimore.
When DeCosta traded away a second- and fifth-round pick and inside linebacker A.J. Klein to Chicago for Smith before the trade deadline, he forfeited considerable leverage in negotiations. Not only were the Ravens parting with coveted draft capital, they were also doing so to acquire a pending free agent who hadn’t yet agreed to an extension.
That wasn’t new ground for the Ravens. Before the 2019 deadline, they’d traded inside linebacker Kenny Young and a fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams to acquire cornerback Marcus Peters, a pending free agent who would go on to earn first-team All-Pro honors in Baltimore. Two-and-a-half months later, the Ravens signed Peters to a three-year, $42 million contract extension.
Smith’s negotiations had a complicating factor, though: quarterback Lamar Jackson’s uncertain future. If Smith and the Ravens hadn’t struck a deal before the start of free agency, the Ravens would have had to decide between designating Smith or Jackson with their franchise tag, binding them to one star for another year. And Jackson, the team’s most important and beloved player, would have almost assuredly been their pick.
Now, with Smith signed, the Ravens can tag Jackson this offseason if contract talks go nowhere. An exclusive franchise tag is expected to be worth about $45 million, a sharp increase from Jackson’s $23 million salary cap hit in 2022. Tagging him would limit DeCosta’s roster flexibility, but it’d also keep Jackson under team control for a sixth year.
After Patrick Queen missed on Pro Bowl honors last month, the Ravens got a potential discount on their ascendant third-year inside linebacker.
First-round picks who are named to exactly one Pro Bowl over their first three years are eligible for a fifth-year base salary equal to the transition tender at their position. For the Ravens, who will have to decide this offseason whether to exercise Queen’s fifth-year option for 2024, that could mean keeping Queen around for $11.6 million instead of a projected $15.6 million.
With a $3.9 million cap hit in 2023, Queen could be one of the Ravens’ best bargains next season. But Smith’s long-term deal raises the question of how much more the Ravens would be willing to commit to the position — not only in 2024, but over the long haul as well.
Given Queen’s career trajectory, an extension won’t come cheap. In his first regular season under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, he moved past an early-season slump to emerge as one of the NFL’s most versatile off-ball linebackers. After Week 5, only 10 players graded out more highly at the position, according to Pro Football Focus.
Queen finished his third year as a starter with career bests in tackles (117), sacks (five), passes defended (six), quarterback hits (14), missed-tackle rate (7.1%) and passer rating allowed in coverage (83.1), according to Pro Football Reference. Only five other players have at least 300 tackles and 10 sacks overall since 2020 — one of them being Smith.
Under former general manager Ozzie Newsome and now DeCosta, the Ravens haven’t hesitated to pour resources into positions they see as vital. Their secondary has perennially been among the NFL’s best compensated; cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s five-year contract extension was finalized in October 2020, not even 10 months after Peters had signed his deal to remain in Baltimore.
If the Ravens believe their linebacker duo is good enough to carry their defense, they’ll try to keep them together.
Over the season’s first two months, the Ravens struggled to stop the run. They were thin at outside linebacker, and their woeful depth left holes for opponents out wide. Their inside linebackers missed tackles and were blocked out of the way at the second level. They lost defensive tackle Michael Pierce, their best interior run stuffer, in Week 3 to a season-ending torn bicep After Week 8, the team’s once-vaunted run defense ranked 22nd in the NFL in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
Then Smith arrived in Baltimore, and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser returned from a torn Achilles tendon, and everything changed.
Since Week 9, the Ravens rank first in run defense efficiency, second in expected points added per play against runs, fourth in yards allowed before contact per rush, and sixth in defensive success rate against runs, according to TruMedia. They’ve held five opponents to 65 yards rushing or fewer in that span, after doing so just once from Week 1 to Week 8.
(EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position, while a defense’s run success rate is measured by how often it stops an offense from gaining at least 40% of the yards to go on first down, 60% of the yards to go on second down, and 100% of the yards to go on third or fourth down.)
Smith has been central to the Ravens’ turnaround. His 30 defensive “stops” — tackles that result in what’s considered a failed play — since Week 9 are tied with Queen for the 14th-most among off-ball linebackers, according to PFF. His nine tackles for no gain on running plays are tied with the Los Angeles Rams’ Bobby Wagner for the most in that span, according to TruMedia.
When Smith “held in” at Bears training camp this summer, initially refusing to practice without a new long-term deal, it was not hard to imagine a protracted contract dispute spilling over into the offseason.
A trade offered Smith a reset. And in Baltimore, he’s found a front office, a coaching staff and a locker room that appreciate him.
DeCosta’s deal represents a significant financial commitment at a position that some analysts have said is overvalued in the modern NFL. Smith’s extension includes $45 million fully guaranteed, according to the NFL Network.
Smith’s role can now continue to evolve in a defense that, under Macdonald, has tried new ways to maximize his athletic gifts. In his first eight games with the Bears this season, he was involved in Chicago’s pass rush 24 times, or three times per game, according to PFF. In Baltimore, he has rushed the passer 42 times, or 4.7 times per game.
Smith’s extension also ensures his return to a locker room that embraced him as quickly as he did his new teammates. Smith needed little time in Baltimore to befriend Queen, learn the defensive playbook and earn an affectionate new nickname: “Uncle Ro.”
“Man I just now saw the news,” Humphrey tweeted Tuesday. “I’m so happy for Uncle Ro..!”