In an almost unheard of move by a reigning Super Bowl champion, the Baltimore Ravens spent this offseason completely retooling their roster.
Instead of hoping to recapture their 2012 success by fielding the same players in 2013, they decided that the best course of action for future championship runs was to dismantle much of what helped them hoist their franchise's second Vince Lombardi Trophy in February.
Though the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis was expected in Baltimore, the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the release of strong safety Bernard Pollard and the willingness to let linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and free safety Ed Reed move on to new teams was not.
Despite the myriad holes left in Baltimore's defense by making those moves, the Ravens seemed unwilling to look at the past to solve their potential problems of the future. Instead, the plan was to get younger, make intelligent free agency decisions and build a stronger roster immediately as well as for the long term.
The question is whether or not this will work, starting in 2013.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is regarded as a genius at his job, and his decisions this offseason have received mostly universal praise. But what if he's ultimately bitten off more than he can chew, and Baltimore's five-year string of uninterrupted playoff appearances comes to an end? Is this team really better off than it was 12 months ago?
Of the Ravens' numerous offseason moves, their smartest was their ability to effectively fill their two starting safety vacancies with underrated free safety Michael Huff in free agency and the team opting to take strong safety Matt Elam in Round 1 of this year's draft. Baltimore also took advantage of a fax machine comedy of errors and landed Elvis Dumervil to replace the departed Kruger.
The real questions the Ravens must answer this offseason come at wide receiver and inside linebacker.
Losing Boldin in a trade to the San Francisco 49ers means that it's likely Jacoby Jones, in his second year with the Ravens, will take the No. 2 job, unless the team opts to pick up a veteran free agent in the coming months. If the position truly does belong to Jones, though, it will also require the rest of their young receiving corps to prove themselves, with someone stepping up into Jones' former No. 3 role or to even surpass him on the depth chart this summer.
The choices there include Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams and David Reed—none of whom have been in the NFL longer than four seasons.
Making the situation a bit easier for the Ravens to handle, however, is their pair of tight ends—Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
Less can be asked of these younger receivers as long as Dickson and Pitta, especially, can continue to be effective this year, which is also probably a major reason why the Ravens didn't mind trading Boldin after Boldin opted against taking a salary cut to stay.
The inside linebacker situation is a bit more dire, at least from a depth perspective. With Lewis retiring and Ellerbe becoming a free agent and joining the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens picked up former first-round draft pick Rolando McClain, who then promptly retired to get his life in order.
Veteran Jameel McClain has yet to return from his 2012 spinal cord contusion and though he's hoped to be ready by training camp, he's not medically cleared.
In addition, Baltimore's second-round draft pick, inside linebacker Arthur Brown, is working his way back from sports hernia surgery. To bolster their depth, the Ravens brought in free agent Daryl Smith from Jacksonville, but he too has injury issues, missing 2012 with a groin problem.
That leaves the Ravens with three completely healthy inside linebackers—Albert McClellan, Josh Bynes and Bryan Hall. They need that to change by the time September rolls around.
Aside from those two positional question marks, however, the Ravens are still an incredibly strong team. As long as quarterback Joe Flacco's "consistently inconsistent" years of up-and-down production on a near-weekly basis are behind him, he'll earn every penny of his big-money deal.
Running back Ray Rice is also a valuable receiver and his No. 2, Bernard Pierce, proved last season that he's a weapon in his own right.
On defense, the Ravens have managed to get younger and, hopefully, faster, especially in the middle of the field where they struggled against running backs and tight ends last season.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb should return healthy from his 2012 ACL tear. Their offensive line, which finally found its sweet spot once the playoffs began last year, should be comprised of the same starters this year. Their special teams—both on kick returns and kick coverage—should be just as good as they were last season.
All that being said, it appears—at least on paper as mandatory minicamp begins—that the Ravens are in a better roster situation than they were last year. They have released themselves from the strain of expensive salaries due aging players, found more-than-adequate replacements for those players who have departed and held onto playmakers instead of the past.
As long as their group of inside linebackers get healthy over the summer and they have a No. 2 receiver who they are truly comfortable with, there's no reason to believe the Ravens cannot be as good as—if not better—than they were in 2012.
Most important is that this Baltimore roster is younger, allowing the Ravens to stay atop the AFC North beyond simply just this season.
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