6. I’m intrigued to see what offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell does with a full offseason planning how to use Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce at the running back position. Hindsight is 20-20 after the Ravens handed over $24 million in guaranteed money to Rice just months before Pierce exploded onto the scene in the second half of his rookie season. Rice will continue to play a large role in the offense, but Pierce’s superior ability to gain yards after contact is the perfect complement to the Pro Bowl back’s skills as a receiver and to make defenders miss in open space. Finding enough touches for each is a great problem to have, but I can’t overlook Pierce’s 5.5 yards per carry average over the final eight games of the season, meaning Rice could see his number of carries decrease next season. This would allow the Ravens the freedom to use Rice even more as a receiver out of the backfield and to keep him fresher over the course of the entire season.
7. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes is someone to watch next season. The Ravens will do all they can to re-sign Dannell Ellerbe, but Bynes is likely to be a bigger factor defensively with the retirement of Ray Lewis and the unclear status of Jameel McClain’s neck. The undrafted Auburn product filled in admirably late in the season in making three starts while Ellerbe, McClain, and Lewis were sidelined, even making defensive calls and donning the headset inside his helmet. Bynes is a good special-teams player and showed an impressive football IQ and maturity on the field despite his lack of experience. The Ravens will look to address the inside linebacker position in the draft, but Bynes appears to be the latest undrafted player to make an impact at the linebacker position, joining a long line of players including Ellerbe, McClain, and Albert McClellan in recent seasons. With their current cap constraints, the Ravens may have no choice but to turn to Bynes as a potential starter at inside linebacker next season.
8. After a lackluster preseason, Courtney Upshaw quietly put together a solid rookie year in Baltimore. Conditioning concerns and a shoulder injury led the 2012 second-round pick to be lost in the mix early on, but Upshaw displayed a solid ability to stop the run and started nine games as he played mostly at the strongside linebacker position in running situations and finished seventh on the team in tackles (55). The Alabama product showed the ability to set the edge and has a good motor, evident in the Super Bowl when he missed a tackle of 49ers running back LaMichael James but didn’t give up on the play and eventually forced the fumble that was recovered by teammate Arthur Jones in the first half. If his rookie season was any indication, Upshaw won’t be much of a pass rusher (only 1 1/2 sacks in 16 games), but he projects to be a linebacker similar in nature to former Raven Jarret Johnson. His rookie season didn’t grab many headlines, but he showed more than enough for the Ravens to feel comfortable penciling him in at the Sam linebacker spot on first and second downs next season.
9. With Paul Kruger all but certain to depart in free agency, the Ravens would love to see at least one of their two pass-rushing projects, Michael McAdoo and Adrian Hamilton, develop. McAdoo spent the last two seasons on injured reserve and Hamilton was only active for two games after spending most of the season on the practice squad, but the Ravens like the upside that each possesses as a pass rusher. McAdoo has freakish size at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, but the Ravens need to see what they have in him after investing time and money in the former North Carolina defensive end. Hamilton had a record-setting season at Prairie View A&M with 20 1/2 sacks at the FCS level in 2011, so it will be interesting to see how he develops with a full offseason in Baltimore. If one of the two can emerge as a potential pass-rush option in the preseason, it would help to offset the anticipated loss of Kruger.
10. Many have described Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata as having bad contracts, but let’s not forget the two best seasons of Suggs’ career took place over the span of his current agreement. I understand the frustration in looking at the astronomical 2013 cap numbers for the pair ($13 million for Suggs and $11.5 million for Ngata) while remembering how little production they offered this season. However, the criticism over the Suggs’ contract might be too strong when recalling how dominating he was in 2010 and 2011 — the second and third seasons of his current six-year deal — when he collected a total of 25 sacks and forced nine fumbles. On the other hand, it’s difficult to dispute the disappointing early return on Ngata’s five-year, $61 million contract signed early in the 2011 season. Suggestions of cutting either player are silly at this juncture as Suggs’ release would only save $1.8 million after taking into account the dead money that would be applied to the 2013 cap while Ngata’s release would result in $22.5 million in dead money, making it cheaper from a cap standpoint to keep him despite his $11.5 million figure for 2013. A poor season for Suggs might force the Ravens to make a difficult decision next offseason — when they could clear $7.8 million in cap space by cutting him — but the structure of Ngata’s deal makes it virtually impossible to entertain thoughts of releasing him until after the 2014 season at the earliest.