The Definitive Blueprint to Baltimore's Perfect Offseason
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In what has been deemed a holiday by some pundits, "Black Monday" is the label given to the day following the final Sunday of the regular season. Yesterday claimed the jobs of seven head coaches in the NFL and multiple front office personnel.
As the dust settled and two-thirds of the NFL started looking ahead to the offseason, the other 12 teams still have an eye on the ultimate prize. While only one of the final playoff squads will be able to win its last game of the season, there will still be room to grade the year as a success.
There is no perfect team in the NFL. The parity in the league is such that even the team with the worst record in the league, Jacksonville, managed to remain competitive against two of the last playoff teams it faced. The Jaguars even took division-winning Houston to overtime in Houston before falling, 43-37.
The Baltimore Ravens enter the playoffs this week on a bit of a roll, but in the wrong direction. Racing out to a 9-2 record, the AFC North division winners ended the season in less than convincing fashion, losing four of their last five.
The single-elimination tournament of the NFL playoffs lends itself to any outcome though. The last two Super Bowl champions have defied conventional wisdom. The 2011 champion Green Bay Packers was the second sixth-seeded team to even make it to the Super Bowl. Last year's winner, New York, was only the third team to compete in the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins (9).
Surely the Baltimore Ravens have visions of overcoming the same obstacles of the last two Lombardi Trophy winners, but team architect Ozzie Newsome has already started planning the Ravens' offseason.
There are a number of questions that will need to be answered over the spring and summer of 2013. In addition, some very important decisions will have to be made that could dramatically change the appearance of the 2013 Baltimore Ravens.
There can certainly be no "perfect" blueprint to a team's offseason planning, but if the Ravens are looking to improve next season, they will need to address some very important areas.
Re-Sign Key Players
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The Baltimore Ravens currently have $1.4 million available in salary cap space. In order to retain the services of their top pending free agents, Ozzie Newsome will need to go to work restructuring some contracts or just making some cuts.
Baltimore has 37 players under contract through 2013 with a salary cap total of around $106 million. The projected NFL salary cap for 2013 is projected to be around $121 million (NFL.com), leaving Baltimore very little wiggle room to fill its roster.
While even the most pessimistic Baltimore fan can have faith in Newsome's talents navigating the often slippery slope of the salary cap, there will likely be some big names that may have to take some salary rollbacks in 2013.
Baltimore started to show its age on the defensive side of the ball, and three potential Hall of Famers may find themselves at the center of Newsome's salary cap budget plan. Ed Reed is an unrestricted free agent, Ray Lewis is scheduled to make $5.4 million and Terrell Suggs $6.4 million. Reed made over $7 million this season and probably isn't looking for a significant pay cut.
Reed, who will be turning 35 next September, clearly isn't the player that he once was, but he is still a key member of the defense. If he puts his price tag too high, Newsome could let him walk. The money that Reed could command on his name alone might be better spent on other UFA's like Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. It would be tough to let Reed walk away, but that is the business side of the NFL.
Reload in the Draft
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An area where Baltimore has excelled is finding depth in the draft. The downside to making the playoffs over the last five seasons means that Ozzie Newsome hasn't had the opportunity to get a crack at the "can't-miss" players higher up on the draft board.
However, with an excellent eye for talent, the Ravens have gotten some steals from the last few draft classes that have worked out nicely. With all of the injuries on the defense this year, there have been some young and promising players that have been thrown into the spotlight a little earlier than expected.
With the Ravens struggling on the offensive line all season, expect them to look long and hard at taking the best available players to strengthen the pass protection and run-blocking. With a couple of older more expensive veterans on the roster, the draft is an opportunity for Baltimore to get younger, deeper on the bench and more salary-cap friendly.
Explore Free Agency
With the limitations on the salary cap, it certainly isn't likely that Baltimore will be big players in the pursuit of free agents. That said, if contracts don't get restructured or if negotiating gets ugly, Baltimore could find itself with a little more money in its pockets to play with.
The Ravens haven't built their roster with free agency, but they will certainly keep an eye on some of the talent that will become available on March 13.
Trim the Fat
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As Baltimore struggled down the stretch, losing four of its last five games, there were certain deficiencies that became quite obvious. The offensive line at times was quite literally offensive, and not in a good way. Pass-blocking can make a quarterback look good or look terrible, and the Baltimore line hasn't given Joe Flacco a fighting chance over the last month of the season.
Baltimore needs to take a long look at its offensive line and figure out if the players under contract are worth keeping around. On the defensive side, there is a lot of money being spent on players over the age of 30. Sure it's nice to see the familiar faces and have those names on the roster, but the business side of the NFL is all about "what have you done for me lately?"
There was a lot of money sitting on the sidelines this season in Baltimore. Injuries happen in a violent sport, but tend to hit harder and last longer once players hit 30.
Make a Decision at Quarterback
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The biggest name on the Baltimore UFA (unrestricted free agent) list is quarterback Joe Flacco. One of the most polarizing players on the Ravens' roster, Flacco has had five seasons to prove his worth in Baltimore.
Though he has led Baltimore to the postseason every year in the league, his detractors will be quick to point out that Flacco's career arc looks more like a straight line with little significant improvement since his second year in the league.
Knowing that he was playing for the biggest contract of his life, Flacco was unspectacular and inconsistent. At age 27 (28 in January), Flacco should have made the step to the next level if he was going to make that step at all.
He can still have a nice career, but how much money is that worth when his contract negotiations get serious? A strong playoff run can cement Flacco's legacy or sink it with cement loafers if he plays poorly.
I can't imagine that Baltimore has any other choice but to bring Flacco back, but it could slap a franchise tag on him for a year to avoid a long-term commitment. According to speculated numbers from NFL.com, the quarterback tag would cost the Ravens in the neighborhood of $14.6 million. That would require some significant salary shuffling to make Flacco fit, but it would spare the Ravens an expensive long-term deal.