The defending champion Baltimore Ravens will have a target on their back heading into the 2013 season, especially after losing so many key pieces to one of the league’s most intimidating defenses.
Not only did legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis retire from the game after a 17-year Hall of Fame career, but also General Manager Ozzie Newsome basically cleaned out the house following the franchise’s second Super Bowl championship.
Ed Reed, gone. Paul Kruger, gone. Bernard Pollard, gone. Cary Williams, gone. Dannell Ellerbe, gone. Brendan Ayanbadejo, gone.
Despite ranking 12th overall on defense in 2012, Newsome made the decision to part ways with a lot of key components to the squad rather than giving them the money they felt they deserved. After handing over a record-breaking, historic contract to franchise quarterback Joe Flacco, Newsome didn’t have much of a choice but to move forward without some beloved Baltimore defenders.
Though not overly aggressive at the start of the free agency period in March, Baltimore was patient and was able to fill the voids left by Kruger and Reed by bringing in Denver’s pass-rushing monster Elvis Dumervil and Oakland’s free safety Michael Huff on five- and three-year deals, respectively. In addition, the front office utilized the free agency period to add depth to a thin defensive line with the signings of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. Both have the potential to start the season in the defensive lineup, but could also end up backing up Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Terrance Cody.
Though there was a panic-ridden outbreak early in the 2013 off-season after not showing an aggressive approach early on and allowing its current players to sign elsewhere, GM Newsome’s game plan is much more clear as we approach the start of training camp at the end of this month––re-build the defensive side of the ball. Of course it will be tough to replace a guy such as Lewis, but the front office and head coach John Harbaugh made it clear that the defense was their main priority in April’s draft.
In the first round, Baltimore selected Pollard’s replacement at the strong safety position, snagging Florida’s quick, ball-hawking safety Matt Elam with the No. 32 overall pick. Elam, known as one of this year’s draft class’s top safeties, was an electrifying player and emotional leader for the Gators during his college career, and it shouldn’t take him long to win over his new teammates in Baltimore. By the end of the second round of the draft, Baltimore had appeared to fill both Pollard’s and Lewis’ vacant positions with the drafting of inside linebacker Arthur Brown out of Kansas State. Brown will have the shot at being the day one starter on the inside, right alongside veterans Jameel McClain, Dumervil and the emotional leader Terrell Suggs.
Six of the team’s 10 picks in the draft were spent on defensive players, including their first four selections. Additional defensive line depth was added in rounds three (DT Brandon Williams out of Missouri Southern) and six (DE Kapron Lewis-Moore out of Notre Dame). Upon completion of free agency and the draft, Baltimore’s defensive outlook and strengths are completely different from the 2012 season, which ended up with a championship.
As of the beginning of July, the depth chart is projected to have five new starters plus an additional three players from last year’s squad that will be taking on the every day starting role for the first full season (Jones, McClain, Corey Graham). The total also doesn’t include Lardarius Webb’s return from injury.
Moral of the story is this: the defense has undergone major changes heading into the 2013 season, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Baltimore Ravens. The Lewis era is officially in the history books, as is the Reed era. The highly-touted veterans have been replaced with younger, more energetic guys, but the defense will still be able to receive leadership and emotional support from the vets such as Suggs and Ngata in the locker room. Entering the second season with former linebackers coach Dean Pees as the defensive coordinator, you can expect plenty of production from all levels of the defense if the squad can stay healthier than the 2012 campaign.