In mere days, the Ravens have been forced to shift from football mode to offseason mode. No longer will getting the most out of the current players be enough; the Ravens will have to evolve and adapt to have a chance at the big dance in 2013.
That's going to be extremely difficult, considering the Ravens have many expiring contracts and a very difficult salary cap situation. General Manager Ozzie Newsome will need to tread with caution to construct another Super Bowl contender next season.
Following a strict blueprint will be crucial for the Ravens. Setting priorities and following through on them can turn a difficult situation into a huge success. Let's take a look at what the Ravens can do to succeed this offseason.
All sides are optimistic regarding Joe Flacco's contract situation, but there can be no doubt this will still be a central focus for the Ravens.
Questions abound about what is a fair price for Flacco. On one hand, Flacco has never thrown for over 4,000 yards, nor has he ever exceeded a passer rating of 95.0 in a season. There is nothing elite about his statistics.
Flacco is a different quarterback in the playoffs, though, and in that regard, he may be worthy of top-five money.
If Flacco is really worthy of that kind of money, then the main question will be how the Ravens will fit his contract under the cap. The $20 million a year that Flacco is seeking would devastate the Ravens' cap situation without some creative maneuvering.
This is a situation to keep an eye on. What Flacco is actually worth remains a hotly contested issue, but we'll get an answer soon, be it through a new long-term deal or the franchise tag.
Beyond Flacco, many of the Ravens' top players are going to hit the open market. To be competitive again next season, the Ravens will have to pick and choose which players are most important and which can be let go.
In order of importance, these players must be re-signed:
Kruger was absolutely dynamic this season as a pass-rusher, racking up a total of 55 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription needed). No other Raven was even close to that number, making Kruger's performance that much more impressive.
Star pass-rushers are hard to come by. Letting one walk in free agency would be a terrible mistake, especially considering how much the Ravens' other edge rushers struggled in 2012.
The best inside linebacker this season for the Ravens was Dannell Ellerbe, and the continuity he would bring would really help this defense improve in 2013.
Ellerbe excelled in run defense and blitz situations, placing second on the team in tackles with 92 and tying for third in sacks with 4.5. His explosive downhill style really helped the Ravens when he was allowed to play more aggressively. Keeping Ellerbe around would ensure that the Ravens have a solid inside linebacker returning.
Dennis Pitta (RFA)
There is no way that the Ravens will re-sign Flacco to a big deal and not re-sign one of his best friends in Pitta. Flacco loves to look Pitta's way on third down, both down the field and in the flat.
Thankfully, Pitta is a restricted free agent, making him much easier to keep around. A long-term deal for Pitta, though, could be tough to hammer out.
Before the playoffs, I would have said that left tackle is the Ravens' biggest need. Little did any of us realize how well Bryant McKinnie would play in the playoffs. The Ravens need to re-sign him and make him the full-time starter at left tackle.
The main concern with McKinnie is his age, as he's 34 years old. He would be an excellent stop-gap starter, though, as the Ravens develop a young player to take his place.
There are some players who the Ravens will likely need to let go for salary cap reasons. These players should only be re-signed for a good deal:
For all the accolades Cary Williams received this season, he was still a largely mediocre cornerback. Williams gave up 67 receptions this season for 938 yards—both statistics ranking in the bottom-five in the NFL.
Williams isn't a terrible player, but he isn't worthy of the big contract he is likely to receive on the open market.
In an ideal world, Ed Reed would remain a Raven for the rest of his life. Sadly, it's not an ideal world, and Reed doesn't seem likely to fit into the Ravens' long-term plans.
Reed is deteriorating at a rapid pace, as he missed 14 tackles this season. Though he can still play, as evidenced by his four interceptions and usually sound coverage, Reed won't be worth the massive price tag he will command.
Based on current contracts, the Ravens will be on the hook for $107.396 million in contracts this season, against a cap that will likely be around $120 million. They will need to do some smart maneuvering to be able to improve this roster and stay under the cap.
Three contracts stand out as worthy of re-negotiation. If the Ravens pull off these re-negotiations, they would be in a great position to make some bigger moves in free agency:
Anquan Boldin ($7,531,250 against cap)
As good as Anquan Boldin was in the playoffs this year, he's never gone over 1,000 yards in a Ravens uniform. The production doesn't match the cap figure.
If the Ravens could get Boldin to take even a small pay cut, they could figure to add one more free agent.
Terrell Suggs ($13,020,000 against cap)
The Ravens paid Suggs over $5 million for each of his two sacks this past season. His Achilles' injury limited him mightily, but the point is that Suggs is a big question mark heading in to next season.
As the highest paid player on the Ravens next season, Suggs cannot afford to be a question mark. The Ravens need to try to redo his contract to reflect his uncertain ability in 2013. They could save tons of money in doing so.
Haloti Ngata ($11,500,000 against cap)
Ngata, like Suggs, was limited slightly by injuries. That having been said, Ngata is worthy of a huge salary at his best. That means that restructuring his deal would likely just push money towards the back end of his contract. That could save the Ravens enough money to make a big move in free agency.
When the Ravens struggled in 2012, it was because of their offense and defensive fronts. At one point, the defensive front seven gave up 200-plus yards rushing in three consecutive games, while the offensive line surrendered 38 total sacks this season.
Fortunately, this year's draft and free agency classes are strong on both accounts.
In free agency, the Ravens could look at Will Beatty, Ryan Clady or Jake Long for long-term left tackle answers. All three would be expensive, but one could be worthwhile for the right price.
On the other side of the ball, Aubrayo Franklin is a solid run defender who would be a big short-term upgrade at nose tackle. Antwan Barnes could be worth a look as an edge-rusher as well. In 2011, Barnes racked up 11 sacks for the San Diego Chargers, showing his pass-rushing prowess. Both of these players are former Ravens.
In the draft, all of the Ravens needs could be addressed with some quality players.
If the Ravens are lucky, a guy like Lane Johnson from Oklahoma would be available at the end of the first round to be their future left tackle.
Realistically, the Ravens will probably have to settle for a defensive player. There are plenty of front-seven defenders who could be excellent consolation prizes. Georgia nose tackle Johnathan Jenkins, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor and SMU defensive end Margus Hunt all stand out as worthy selections.
All in all, the Ravens need to address nose tackle, edge rusher, inside linebacker and offensive tackle sometime this offseason. They need to once again prioritize the front seven to maintain their excellent form in 2013.
More likely that not, the Ravens will be welcoming two new starters to the secondary in 2013. Cary Williams and Ed Reed could both move on, meaning the Ravens need to start looking for replacements.
Corey Graham played well in relief of Lardarius Webb this season, so he will be part of the equation this season. The depth behind Webb and Graham is lacking, though, as Jimmy Smith and Chykie Brown are both question marks.
In the draft, mid-round prospects such as Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne and Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde would both excel in the Ravens' man coverage.
The Ravens could also look at guys like Chris Houston and Greg Toler in free agency, both of whom played well in 2012.
Safety is a little more difficult to figure out, as the Ravens are more likely to retain Reed than Williams. That having been said, they drafted Christian Thompson to be a likely replacement for Reed, meaning safety might not be a need, regardless.
If the Ravens can get a solid safety in the draft, though, they'll be sure to pounce. Florida's Matt Elam and Texas' Kenny Vaccaro stand out as first-round options.
With a good offseason and the return of Lardarius Webb, the Ravens could turn a weakness into a strength next season.
Ray Lewis is gone. Ed Reed will likely follow suit. The Ravens' veteran leadership is flying away, and they'll need new leaders to step up.
Fortunately, there are some guys who have already stepped into leadership roles. Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice stand out as two players who command respect with their work ethic and vocal leadership. Joe Flacco leads by example, but his quiet demeanor also stabilizes a locker room full of large personalities.
On the defensive side, Terrell Suggs is certainly a leader, as he stepped up in a big way in Ray Lewis' brief absence in 2011. When healthy, Suggs is a terror on the field and an emotional trend-setter off of it. This season, though, Suggs was quiet on and off the field. He needs to play well to regain that role.
Forecasting future leaders is difficult, but a few guys stand out with potential.
Torrey Smith is a tireless worker and high-character player who could inherit Anquan Boldin's leadership role in a few years. He is certainly a valued member of the locker room.
On defense, Arthur Jones always plays with an unquenchable fire. Though he's not considered one of the defensive stars, his emotion could find him being a trendsetter on defense.
Finally, Bernard Pollard is a hard hitter who is popular in the locker room. He's one of just a handful of Ravens willing to call out the team, which is a valuable role. When the team struggles, Pollard inspires them to do better. He should take on a bigger role in the locker room going forward.
All in all, the Ravens have the players in place to fill the void left by Lewis. They just need to grow into those roles for the Ravens to maintain their emotional edge.