If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward, or so the saying goes.
It’s been three weeks since the Ravens fell a few tenths of a second short — how much longer Lee Evans needed to hold the ball in the end zone — of advancing to Super Bowl XLVI. The organization is now faced with difficult decisions while trying to improve but also acknowledging just how excruciatingly close it came to reaching the pinnacle contest of the NFL.
With free agency set to begin in one month (March 13 at 4:00 p.m.) and the draft just over two months away, the Ravens are evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the first of a three-part series, I offer thoughts on the offensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need entering the offseason.
1. Left guard
I’ve tried to think of as many conceivable scenarios as I can for the Ravens to re-sign Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs while not putting their future salary cap space in jeopardy, but I continue to come back to the same theme over and over.
In the modern era, NFL teams simply cannot and do not spent an extraordinary amount of money at the guard position. And after signing Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda to a $32 million contract with $10 million guaranteed, it’s difficult envisioning general manager Ozzie Newsome forking over even more money for Grubbs, especially with quarterback Joe Flacco and cornerback Lardarius Webb set to become free agents following the 2012 season.
Neither the Ravens nor Grubbs have spoken with any level of confidence that the 2007 first-round pick will be back in Baltimore, so a hometown discount appears unlikely. Though Baltimore has retained all but one (2005 selection Mark Clayton) of its first-round picks since 2002, it appears Grubbs will find a new home in 2012.
So, how do the Ravens replace him? The only viable in-house candidate might be 2011 third-round tackle Jah Reid, who practiced at both tackle and guard last season, but his 6-foot-7 frame isn’t ideal inside and he’d be making the transition from the right tackle position.
The draft would figure to be the logical outlet, with a young guard such as Stanford’s David DeCastro or Georgia’s Cordy Glenn potentially available at the end of the first round. However, the Ravens could elect to address other positions of need in the early rounds and roll the dice in finding a competent veteran on the free-agent market.
On the surface, the center position would appear to be an urgent need with no veteran currently under contract for 2012, but the Ravens have short-term veteran options in Matt Birk and Andre Gurode.
Birk has yet to decide whether he’ll play in 2012 or retire, but the Ravens could elect to re-sign the five-time Pro Bowl center Gurode, who is three years younger. Regardless of which way the Ravens go, they will need to think about the future at the position with both players close to the end of their respective careers.
Former Ohio State product Justin Boren finished the season on the practice squad and could be a center to groom for 2013 and beyond. Should the Ravens elect to draft a center in April, it likely wouldn’t be until the middle or late rounds unless Wisconsin’s Peter Konz would strike their fancy at the end of the first round.
3. Wide receiver
The receiver position has seemingly showed up on the list every year, but this unit appears to be in better shape than it has in quite some time.
Veteran Anquan Boldin is clearly not a No. 1 receiver at this point in his career, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a better season in 2012 after he played with a partially-torn meniscus for most of 2011. When he returned for the postseason after late-season surgery, Boldin appeared more effective, catching 10 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in two playoff games.
Torrey Smith figures to only get better with a full offseason to work on his route-running and build a stronger rapport with Flacco. If he can become a bigger threat in the short-to-intermediate passing game, Smith might become the No. 1 receiver the Ravens have lacked since the infancy of the franchise.
The disappointing Evans is under contract for the 2012 season, but it’s hard to envision the Ravens paying the receiver a $1 million roster bonus in March and tolerating his near-$6 million cap number for the upcoming season. He’ll likely be released, with a small chance for a return at a reduced rate.
The Ravens would love a young receiver with height to complement the speedy Smith moving forward, but it’s easier said than done in the pass-happy NFL where every team is looking for big, speedy targets on the outside. A veteran free agent such as Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, or Dwayne Bowe would provide another threat at receiver but would not provide the height the Baltimore receiving group lacks. San Diego wideout Vincent Jackson would be the ideal 6-foot-5 name in free agency, but his price tag will be hefty.
Adding another impact wide receiver might be the only way to truly gauge whether Flacco can take the passing game to the next level, and the Ravens will try their best to do it this offseason.
4. Running back
(see next page)