Ravens bracing for different look for NFL's No. 1 defense

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens slowed down Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers.

But the NFL's No. 1 defense is bracing for something it cannot stop: offseason change.

Five starters -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Eric Weddle, cornerback Jimmy Smith and defensive end Brent Urban -- are all questionable on whether they'll return next season. That's nearly half the starting lineup for a group that allowed only three teams (the Bengals, Panthers and Chiefs) to score more than 25 points this season.

"I'm still at a loss for words, honestly," defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. "Hopefully, we can get those guys back, but everybody knows it's the NFL, how free agency works. So it's going to be a tough road."

In their first season under new defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale, the Ravens held teams to a league-low 292.9 yards per game and finished No. 1 in defense for only the second time in franchise history. This defense deserved a better fate in Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, in which Baltimore gave up 243 total yards and one touchdown.

A key for this year's defense was continuity. The Ravens brought back every starter from the 2017 team. The only adjustment was switching from former coordinator Dean Pees.

One of the bigger decisions for new general manager Eric DeCosta, who takes over for Ozzie Newsome, is how much younger this dominant defense should get. The average age of the starters on defense is 28, and four (Suggs, Weddle, Smith and nose tackle Brandon Williams) will be 30 or older by the start of next season.

"Obviously, I want the whole [group] back," said linebacker Matthew Judon, who could emerge as one of the next core leaders on this defense. "Let’s keep everybody and draft nobody –- trade them all away for money. But that’s not how it works. I’m not playing a video game."

The three starters scheduled to become unrestricted free agents are Mosley, Suggs and Urban. The other high-profile free agent on defense is linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who led Baltimore with 8.5 sacks.

Mosley, 26, has been to the Pro Bowl in four of his five NFL seasons, but he has faced criticism about how well he holds up in coverage. Suggs, 36, has played more games than anyone else in Ravens history, but he finished with 34 tackles, his fewest in a full season since his rookie year.

After wrapping up his 15th season, Suggs wants to continue playing. He has recorded at least seven sacks in his past five seasons.

"I would love to be a Raven for life," Suggs said. "I’m healthy, and I still feel like I have some juice in the tank. We’ll have to see what happens. It’s a long time between here and March. So we’re just going to enjoy it and hope we can work it out. If not, I’ll be lining up for somebody next year."

The biggest potential salary-cap cuts on defense are Weddle and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. They were key members of the secondary that held quarterbacks to an 80.2 passer rating (second in the NFL).

Weddle is considered the quarterback of the defense. Carr is the current ironman of all defenders. Smith is the team's No. 2 corner who would start for any defense in the NFL.

"I got a lot of ball left in me, here with the Ravens," Smith said.

Baltimore can create $21 million in cap space by parting ways with Smith ($9.5 million cap savings), Weddle ($6.5 million) and Carr ($5 million).

"Obviously, [there’s] uncertainty of the future for a lot of us, but the foundation has been set this season with the older guys and the coaches, and the young guys learning and understanding that this is what it’s about, being all-in, the belief, the trust and playing for each other," Weddle said. "That’s what makes this sport great. It’s not about the individual. It’s about the team. That’s what has made this group so special. I think no matter what happens, that will be who the Ravens are and continue to be, and that’s exciting for myself to see how we’ve grown for the last three years and where this team is going to go."