When the confetti settled and the stage was cleared away, the Baltimore Ravens left the Superdome with worries of the future tucked neatly away. For the San Francisco 49ers, the future was likely the only thing on their minds.
Super Bowl XLVII gave fans every ounce of excitement they could have hoped for and the great story lines, superstar players and late-game drama culminated in what it sure to be one of the most memorable games in NFL history. But when the excitement settles, it will be paramount for each executive, coach and player to begin thinking about what this offseason will bring.
Baltimore and San Francisco have the pieces in place to make a return trip to the playoffs next season. As is the case with every team in the league though, free agency and the NFL draft promise a lot of uncertainty—not to mention potential retirements and coaching changes.
Given the various shortcomings each team displayed in the Super Bowl, it is apparent that if either team hopes to return to the Super Bowl next season, changes will have to be made. We take a look at some of the biggest questions facing each team as the dust settles in New Orleans.
Ray Lewis’ Retirement
Not to take a single thing away from Ray Lewis, but he showed his age against the San Francisco 49ers. Lewis struggled to cover the 49ers in-line receivers, made evident by Vernon Davis’ eight-catch, 104-yard performance on Sunday. In a defensive scheme that requires its inside linebackers to blanket opposing tight ends on a regular basis, Lewis’ inability to do so could have cost the Ravens dearly.
That said, Lewis’ 17-year career may be the best we’ve ever seen from an NFL linebacker and he’ll retire as a crucial piece of the puzzle for a Ravens team facing several questions on the defensive side of the ball this offseason.
How will Baltimore address replacing Ray Lewis?
Baltimore will replace Lewis in the starting lineup, but it will be hard for the team to ever replace his intensity and leadership as the heart and soul of its defense.
Dannell Ellerbe, Josh Bynes and Brendon Ayanbadejo represent a solid core of inside linebackers for the Ravens, but Ellerbe is slated to be a free agent this offseason, and with Paul Kruger, Ed Reed and Joe Flacco all likely higher on Baltimore’s list of potential re-signings, there may not be enough room under the salary cap to retain Ellerbe.
While inside linebacker probably won’t be an area of major concern during April’s draft, the Ravens will still need to address the vacancy Lewis will be leaving in the middle of the defense. Finding a defensive leader and strong presence in the middle of the field should be somewhere on the list of Baltimore’s concerns this offseason.
A Secondary that Finished Second
San Francisco mounted a furious comeback in Super Bowl XLVII, but Baltimore’s early-game lead was ultimately too much for the 49ers to overcome.
Carlos Rogers showed his age and Chris Culliver got burnt on multiple occasions, none more damaging than when he bit on a Jacoby Jones double-move for a long touchdown in the second quarter. San Francisco’s secondary did not execute well enough and it cost the 49ers the game.
The 49ers secondary is built much like the rest of its defense. Big hitters and physical press-defenders litter the roster, but San Francisco lacks true cover defenders that can cover a lot of territory and make plays on the football. After giving up 287 passing yards and three touchdowns to Flacco, it became clear what the 49ers need to address in the offseason.
With several quality free-agent defensive backs available this offseason and some strong talent in the NFL draft, San Francisco has an opportunity to plug up some holes in its defensive backfield. For the 49ers to make another deep playoff run next season, that should be priority No. 1.
Paul Kruger’s Pass Rush
With Terrell Suggs banged up and on the shelf for more than half the year, Baltimore was without one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. Suggs has always been ultra-productive off the edge, but the Ravens were missing that element this past year.
Kruger stepped in to fill that role and he did it masterfully. His best season as a professional came at the perfect time for Kruger and an inopportune time for the Ravens’ long-term plans.
Kruger will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and the 26-year-old did enough this season to warrant some big contract offers this summer. His nine sacks led the Ravens defense, showing NFL teams he is capable of being a quality impact-player. As ESPN’s Trey Wingo pointed out during the game, keeping Kruger may prove difficult based on his performance this year.
If he makes more plays like that one..Paul Kruger is going to make it very hard for the Ravens to keep him this off season— trey wingo (@wingoz) February 3, 2013
As is the case with most teams employing a lot of veteran stars, Baltimore is faced with a difficult financial situation this offseason. Ellerbe, Kruger, Reed and Flacco would all likely prefer to stay in Baltimore, but the Ravens can only spend so much and still stay under the salary cap.
If the Ravens can’t manage to keep Kruger under contract for the future, finding an edge-rusher or two in free agency and the draft becomes a necessity. Tough decisions will have to be made, but there’s a good chance Baltimore will be unable to retain all of its most high-profile free agents.