Combine is huge for biggest names on NFL's top-ranked defense

The Baltimore Ravens' coaches and executives are at the NFL scouting combine to see what college prospects could affect the AFC North champions.

The week in Indianapolis is also an important time for some of the biggest names on the NFL's top-ranked defense.

General manager Eric DeCosta estimated half of his week at the combine will be devoted to talking to agents, including those who represent middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Eric Weddle.

Mosley and Suggs are unrestricted free agents for the first time in their careers, and Smith and Weddle are potential salary-cap cuts. They have combined for 17 Pro Bowls in their careers, totaled 3,059 snaps last season and built reputations for being core leaders for a defense that became the second in team history to finish atop the league in fewest yards allowed.

“Historically, we’ve been a team that's been built on defense," DeCosta said. "We take pride in that. I think our fan base takes pride in that. We always want to be the strongest defense we can be, understanding that the salary cap does place parameters on us that aren’t always easy to work with, to keep all your best players. We live in a salary-cap age, so we’ve got to find the right combination of players that we can keep [and] the right combination of players that we can bring back."

DeCosta expressed a desire to keep Mosley and Suggs. He was not as effusive when addressing Weddle and Smith.

Mosley, 26, was the Ravens' leading tackler last season and is Baltimore's highest-profile free agent this offseason. He is one of two players to record at least 500 tackles, eight sacks and eight interceptions since he entered the NFL in 2014 (Carolina’s Luke Kuechly is the other).

A first-round pick in 2014, Mosley has gone to the Pro Bowl in four of his five NFL seasons, which puts him in select company. Seven of the 11 linebackers who were named to Pro Bowls at least four times in five seasons are in the Hall of Fame.

At the end of the season, Mosley and the Ravens both expressed optimism that a deal would get done. DeCosta remained upbeat about that possibility at the combine.

“C.J. is a critical part of our team, a big part of our defense,” DeCosta said. “We hope that we can bring him back next week. We have expectations that we’ll have some progress this week.”

Suggs, 36, is one of the most accomplished pass-rushers in NFL history, ranking first among active players with 132.5 sacks and tying Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neal for 13th all time. The big question is how much does Suggs have left. His 34 total tackles were his fewest in a full season since his 2003 rookie campaign, and he managed 1.5 sacks in his final 10 games last season (including the playoff loss to the Chargers).

“I think ‘Sizz’ is definitely a guy we want back,” DeCosta said. “He’s a guy that means a lot to our franchise, as a player, but also as a leader. I would love to have him back next year.”

There was no such declaration for Weddle or Smith, who would account for two of Baltimore's biggest cap savings if traded or cut. After releasing wide receiver Michael Crabtree last week, the Ravens can gain an additional $16 million in cap room by parting ways with Smith ($9.5 million in savings) and Weddle ($6.5 million).

DeCosta said he expects cornerback Brandon Carr to return, which could be viewed as bad news for Smith. Carr is two years older than Smith (30), but he has been more durable and he's making $5 million less than Smith in base salary.

But the Ravens have worked for years to assemble one of the deepest cornerback groups in their history. Smith is also a favorite of head coach John Harbaugh, who once said Smith would "make history as a cornerback."

Weddle has reached the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons in Baltimore, but he's 34 and is making the fifth-highest salary on the team ($6.5 million). The problem is, the Ravens need to be sure they're keeping Mosley before cutting ties with Weddle or they'll face a big leadership void. Weddle and Mosley shared defensive playcalling duties last season.

So, what's more valuable to the Ravens: the cap room or continuity in the secondary? It's likely the team will try to achieve a little of both, asking Weddle and Smith to take pay cuts to return.

Asked about Smith and Weddle, DeCosta said: "We will spend half the week meeting with different agents regarding our players to talk about various issues, contracts and other things that make our team better."

The Ravens' other issues include sacks leader Za'Darius Smith and starting defensive end Brent Urban heading to free agency. Smith could command a big contract if pass-rushers DeMarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark get the franchise tag.

Baltimore will have to pay a steep price to retain two restricted free agents, defensive tackle Michael Pierce and linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. The Ravens would have to put at least a second-round tender on them, which would eat up over $6 million in cap space.

“We’ve got to be as responsible as we can with the salary cap, trying to free up as much money as we can to make moves moving forward,” DeCosta said. “There’s a lot of different ways to skin the cat, so to speak. I think we’ve had a lot of different discussions on what’s the best move for the club moving forward with different players -- veteran players, younger players.”