Baltimore Ravens Are Not the Free-Agency Losers Most Think They Are

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2013

The Baltimore Ravens aren't the biggest losers of the 2013 offseason. General manager Ozzie Newsome can quickly freshen up his roster by subtly transitioning from the old guard to youthful potential.

He'll be helped by a strong core that isn't among the starters and legendary figures who've left Baltimore this offseason.

Certainly, Newsome's task won't be easy, considering what the Ravens have lost. Center Matt Birk and inside linebacker Ray Lewis both opted to retire as Super Bowl winners.

Birk anchored an offensive line that improved dramatically in the playoffs. However, Lewis is the bigger loss.

Lacking leadership is a big worry for the Ravens without Lewis. Losing Lewis is bad enough, but also losing a player as savvy as Ed Reed seems like a major blow.

Which begs the question: Can Baltimore's defense maintain the consistent excellence achieved with Lewis and Reed?

That run of defensive solidity is even more at risk since linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger bolted in free agency.

The offense may struggle to pick up the slack since wideout Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. That's what the Super Bowl champions lost, but what are they left with?

At every position where the Ravens have lost talent, there are quality players in place, ready to pick up the slack.

Despite missing two greats, the defense can still rely on its best player, Haloti Ngata.

The versatile, hulking tackle determines the success of Baltimore's hybrid defense. Moving him across blocking schemes to create mismatches is still the biggest problem opposing offenses will have to solve.

It's also important that the Ravens have retained Dean Pees as defensive coordinator. He produced some underrated work in 2012.

Pees schemed ways to stifle Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. He compensated for injuries to premier pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and created pressure via a package of clever zone blitzes.

With Pees calling the plays and Suggs back to full health, the Ravens won't miss Kruger and his nine sacks too much. Speaking of returning to full fitness, the Ravens can welcome back their best corner, Lardarius Webb.

He missed 10 games in 2012 with a torn ACL. Having Webb in the lineup again will help the secondary adapt to life without Reed.

Nobody can dispute the Ravens defense has lost key personnel. However, other key players getting healthy, along with clever schemes, means the unit won't be weak without Lewis and Co.

That's the central pattern to the Ravens' offseason. Their losses appear insurmountable, but other factors make those losses less damaging than they seem.

One such factor is the Ravens are no longer a defense-led team. Their offense can now be relied upon to light up scoreboards.

That offense has long-term security thanks to the six-year, $120.6 million deal handed to quarterback Joe Flacco. That contract may have raised eyebrows, but the Ravens had little choice.

No team stays competitive by abruptly shifting quarterbacks. No matter what the critics, including this author, say about the deal, Flacco delivered a Super Bowl.

That's what he was drafted 18th overall in 2008 to do, and he's done it. Torrey Smith, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice form a core of young playmakers around Flacco. Despite the loss of Boldin, that core remains in place.

One man who deserves as much credit as anyone for the Ravens' Super Bowl win is offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. When he took over the play-calling for the offense, it was a turning point in Baltimore's season.

Caldwell knows how to feature what Flacco does best, and that's attack coverage vertically. With that formula and the one-two punch of Rice and Bernard Pierce on the ground, the Ravens can score on anybody. That won't change in 2013, even without Boldin.

It's now clear what the Ravens have lost and what they still have. Yet what is their pattern for moving forward?

This is where Newsome will earn his money and he's already made some interesting moves. Defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears were low-key, smart signings.

They are experienced 3-4 ends and both are natural run-stuffers. That's important for a defense that slipped to 20th against the rush in 2012.

Adding Spears and Canty shows Newsome is taking a different approach to the losses on defense. He's not scrambling to find linebackers to replace Lewis, Ellerbe and Kruger.

Instead, Newsome has maintained the strength and depth of the platform for everything the Ravens do defensively. Canty and Spears join Ngata, Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones to form a fearsome defensive line rotation.

On offense the new pattern is less clear. The line should be okay, even without Birk. The group still features Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher, as well as promising youngster Kelechi Osemele.

The Ravens may be well-stocked in the passing game, but they will miss Boldin. His physical style allowed him to win underneath and on the edge. He became an invaluable outlet who made Flacco's job easier.

Newsome may have faith in burner Jacoby Jones to boost the already prolific deep-passing game. Jones certainly has the size at 6'2" and 220 pounds and showcased his speed as a dangerous return man.

Another intriguing option could be 2012 sixth-round pick Tommy Streeter. He was unused last season after landing on injured reserve.

However, at 6'5" and 220 pounds, Streeter is a tall, speedy flanker with the frame to make big plays. Expanding his playing time would be another example of Newsome turning over key roles from veterans to youngsters.

It's happening on defense, with the likes of McPhee, Jones and cornerback Jimmy Smith. It's the kind of bold regeneration a team might need as it prepares to defend a Super Bowl, rather than chase one.

The fact is the 2012 Ravens were an aging unit that stayed together to win the big one. An exodus of talent was inevitable.

The list of players who will no longer suit up for the Ravens is long and illustrious. However, they still have key stars in place on both sides of the ball and youngsters ready to emerge in major roles.

A return to full health for the likes of Ngata, Suggs and Webb will keep the defense strong. Offensively, the only pressing need might be finding another wideout.

Newsome has parted ways with his share of star players before, including the likes of Adalius Thomas and Jamal Lewis. Since 1996, he has consistently regenerated the team and still remained competitive.

He's done it by taking risks to keep things fresh—like starting a makeover immediately after winning a Super Bowl, instead of giving veteran heroes another year and risking stagnation.

With young talent like Smith and Jones supported by stellar holdovers like Ngata, Suggs and Rice, there's no way the Ravens are big losers this offseason.