As all Ravens fans know, the 2011-2012 season didn't end the way they had envisioned it.
The drive put together by Joe Flacco at the end of the AFC championship game gave fans hope that the Ravens would be able to take the lead with a last-second touchdown or at least send the game into overtime. However, a dropped touchdown pass by Lee Evans and a field goal that missed wide right from Billy Cundiff made it so that Ravens fans would have to bitterly sit and watch the Super Bowl.
So now it is time for Ravens fans to think about the draft and who they can get in free agency to make sure that this time next year there won't be any Ravens in the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens have needs at several positions, including linebacker, tight end, offensive line, cornerback and safety. They need to start bringing in young players who can learn from the veterans on defense because, as much as we all hate it, Ray Lewis is not going to be able to play forever.
Bringing in a young MLB either through the draft or free agency would be perfect. Next season would be Lewis's last, and having a young linebacker play behind him would give that player a good head start in the NFL.
Dropped passes from our tight ends have been a problem the entire season. Ed Dickson just hasn't been what we need him to be. Dennis Pitta has been alright, but neither has been able to replace Todd Heap. Bringing in a TE out of free agency would probably be the best option. Take a veteran who can help teach Dickson and Pitta how to be more effective.
O-Line is a big need. Michael Oher has not played to his potential and had to be moved from LT to RT after the Ravens went out and got Bryant McKinnie. Matt Birk is getting older, and it looks like it might be time for the Ravens to do an entire overhaul of their offensive line.
The situation at cornerback and free safety is different. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is a free agent who the Ravens should re-sign. He played well throughout the season and, more importantly, played superbly in the playoffs with three interceptions in two games.
The free safety position is similar to linebacker. Ed Reed is not getting any younger, and it seems that the big hits that he is known for are now taking a toll on his body. It is time to bring in another free safety through the draft so that Reed can do the same thing for a young player at his position as Lewis is going to do.
The Ravens have a lot of needs that can be filled this offseason, putting the team in position to bring another championship to Baltimore.
At linebacker, there are a few ways the Ravens can go.
They can use a draft pick to take a young stud who would be able to learn behind Ray Lewis. A draft option would be Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State. He is considered a sure-thing first-rounder with a lot of talent but also a lot of off-the-field issues.
He is a mean, hard-nosed linebacker who would fit in with Lewis and T-sizzle. Southern Cal DE/OLB Nick Perry also would be an interesting pick for the Ravens in the first round. He is a feisty player who can make big plays.
The interesting thing about Perry is that he is a Mario Williams-type player. He can be a productive outside linebacker, but could also play on the line and continue to make big plays.
The Ravens would have to be lucky to get any of these players as most mock drafts have them going before the Ravens would get a selection.
If the Ravens decided to go the route of free agency, they have a few options. The best players available would be Mario Williams, Curtis Lofton, D'Qwell Jackson, and Stephen Tulloch. All are young and could take control of the defense and be a replacement when the older players step down.
Mario Williams, who is 26, got hurt this season. But before that, he was on pace for another great year. Curtis Lofton is 24 and can do it all as a defensive leader. Lofton had 147 combined tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and two interceptions. Jackson had a great year for the Browns.
Verdict: Hit the free agent market.
This is the least pressing need. The Ravens have two youngsters, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who may develop into great tight ends. I believe that Pitta is going to be the better of the two, having shown that he has better hands. Dickson had trouble in the playoffs with drops and has constantly shown that he is not going to be a stud in the NFL.
There are a few few tight ends on the free agent market who would be worth signing if the cost is not prohibitive. John Carlson is one. A tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, he is a sure-handed receiver who will not let you down with drops. But he is coming off shoulder surgery, which could be cause for concern.
Jermichael Finley is another potential target. But I see the Packers doing everything they can to re-sign him. But if for some reason, they do not, it would be in the interest of the Ravens to try to sign him.
Finley had 767 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. He is looking for a long-term deal, and might not get it in Green Bay.
Verdict: Wait it out and see about Finley.
The Ravens offensive line has consistently struggled over the past few years and it is not getting any younger. Center Matt Birk is getting older and will probably have to be replaced soon.
There are many offensive line prospects in the draft who could be available for the Ravens, but there will also be players that could be picked up off free agency who could bolster the line and give Flacco the time he needs to make great plays.
Through the draft, the options include Wisconsin center Peter Konz and Iowa State guard Kelechi Osemele. Both would bring youth and a lot of talent.
They also could consider re-signing Ben Grubbs. Nicks is the youngest at 26. He would have an immediate impact and could anchor the line for years to come. Gaither, a former Raven,would also be an option. And re-signing Grubbs also would not be a bad choice since he is considered one of the top three offensive lineman on the free-agent market this year.
Verdict: Use a draft pick on Konz or Osemele, pick up a lineman like Nicks, and re-sign Grubbs.
The offensive line is the biggest need for the Ravens this offseason.
Just like the linebacking corps, the Ravens' safeties are getting older. Ed Reed is becoming more and more injury-prone. It is time to bring in a younger safety through the draft or an experienced safety through free agency to help shore up with secondary.
The cornerback position is one that is trickier. Lardarius Webb is going to become a free agent and Jimmy Smith has shown that he has moments of greatness, but also has the inexperience that comes with a first-year player. Hopefully, with a season under his belt, he will be able to shore up his defense and play like he did against the Patriots when he made acrobatic interceptions
For the safety position, the best options would be to bring in a veteran safety at a low cost and one that would fit in well with the Ravens' style of play. LaRon Landry is a player who is a beast when he is able to stay on the field. At age 27, he has had some injury problems. If he is able to stay healthy, he would be able to dominate and would fit in perfectly with the Ravens' style of defense.
The other option would be to bring in someone through the draft. The best option would be to use a later- round pick on a player like Trenton Robinson from Michigan State. He has been impressing scouts during practices at the Senior Bowl.
If you want to use a draft pick on a cornerback who would help upgrade the secondary as well, the Ravens could look into Janoris Jenkins from North Alabama or Brandon Boykin from Georgia.
Either one of these guys would complement Jimmy Smith on the other side. They make take some time to develop, but with the leadership of the Ravens veterans on defense, they should be able to pick it up no problem.
Verdict- Sign Landry if possible, re-sign Webb, use draft picks on Robinson and Jenkins.
Re-sign Ray Rice at whatever cost. He is a game-changer and quite possibly the best running back the Ravens have ever had. (Yes, I remember Jamal Lewis). Rice means a lot to the Ravens' style of offense. They can't afford to let him go.
Verdict- Do everything in your power to re-sign Ray Rice to whatever size contract he wants.