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Though expected, Grubbs’ departure still stings for Ravens

Posted on 15 March 2012 by Luke Jones

After Ben Grubbs hit the open market on Tuesday, what felt like the inevitable became reality two days later as the Pro Bowl left guard said goodbye to the Ravens by signing a five-year contract with the New Orleans Saints.

The deal is reportedly worth $36 million and includes a $10 million signing bonus and $16 million in guaranteed money. After losing star left guard Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay a day earlier, the Saints made it clear Grubbs was their target to replace him and paid him as such. The former Ravens guard was regarded by most as the second-best guard available behind Nicks.

“There were a lot of things I had to factor in – winning, the locker room, coaches and location,” Grubbs told the Saints’ official Twitter account. “Location is at the bottom of my list but it is still important to me. When I looked at New Orleans, they had all the variables in the right place. It was an easy choice for me.”

Selected with the 29th overall pick of the 2007 draft, Grubbs was a mainstay on the Baltimore offensive line over the last five seasons. His exit leaves a major void on the left side as general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens visited with free-agent guard Evan Mathis on Thursday and will now look at remaining options on the open market.

With the Ravens only holding between $8 and $9 million of projected salary cap space and needing to address several needs this offseason, it was widely assumed they would be unable to retain Grubbs’ services despite having made a “substantial offer” in coach John Harbaugh’s words a few weeks ago. Unable to reach an agreement with agent Pat Dye prior to Tuesday, the Ravens knew their chances of keeping Grubbs diminished greatly once he hit the open market.

A source tells WNST.net’s Drew Forrester the Ravens offered Grubbs $32.5 million, which would have matched the total money of the contract awarded to Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda last summer. Yanda’s five-year contract included a $10 million signing bonus.

Many have questioned whether the Ravens should award another substantial contract at the guard position with current left tackle Bryant McKinnie’s contract set to expire after the 2012 season, but Grubbs was regarded by most as the Ravens’ top offensive lineman. With McKinnie set to turn 33 in September, the Ravens will need to make major decisions regarding the left side of their line in the coming months.

Grubbs’ departure is arguably an unprecedented outcome for the Ravens in dealings with their former first-round picks. Of players selected in the first round in the history of the franchise, the only other one to leave via free agency in which one could argue the Ravens would have liked to retain was cornerback Duane Starks, who departed in 2002 with the Ravens in the middle of a massive salary-cap purge.

The 28-year-old Grubbs had never missed a game in his career prior to being sidelined for six games in 2011 with a turf toe injury. Grubbs’ return to the lineup in early November stabilized an inconsistent offensive line and helped catapult Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to lead the league in yards from scrimmage. McKinnie credited Grubbs as the main reason why he was able to quickly acclimate himself to the Ravens after being signed late in the preseason last August.

In addition to left guard, the Ravens must address the center position with veterans Matt Birk and Andre Gurode both free agents. They remain in negotiations with Birk’s agent Joe Linta and are scheduled to meet with him this week.

A former standout at Auburn, Grubbs becomes the third unrestricted free agent to depart Baltimore after defensive end Cory Redding and linebacker Jarret Johnson signed deals elsewhere on Wednesday.

 

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With Grubbs likely to depart, Ravens showing interest in other offensive linemen

Posted on 14 March 2012 by Luke Jones

With Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson signing contracts elsewhere on Wednesday, the next potential departure from the Ravens could be even more painful in left guard Ben Grubbs.

The Pro Bowl lineman visited with New Orleans and took a physical on the second day of free agency. With former Saints left guard Carl Nicks signing a reported five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that includes $31 million guaranteed, it could signal the end of the Ravens’ chances of retaining Grubbs.

Nicks’ departure from the Saints opens up a void on the New Orleans offensive line and also shifts Grubbs to the top of the list of available interior linemen. It was already expected that Grubbs would have to take less money in order to remain in Baltimore, but the benchmark set by Nicks’ contract dwarfs any potential offer made by the Ravens.

A number of teams are reportedly in the market for a guard including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Cleveland, so there is likely a suitor to meet agent Pat Dye’s demands for his client.

Not waiting idly for Grubbs to make a decision, general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens will welcome free-agent guard Evan Mathis to town for a visit. The 30-year-old spent the 2011 season with the Philadelphia Eagles after three seasons with Cincinnati, making him quite familiar with the AFC North.

“I got to see it for myself for a couple years,” Mathis said on AM 1570 WNST on Wednesday. “It was always a challenge playing teams like the Ravens and the Steelers with those really stout [defenses]. It’d be cool to be a part of again. I want to be on a good team and I want to have a chance to compete. I’m a competitor. I want to win a Super Bowl, and I want to play for an organization that has that chance.”

Mathis became a full-time starter for the first time last season after spending his first six seasons primarily as a backup, but he graded out favorably with the Eagles, rating as the best left guard in the NFL in ProFootballFocus.com’s grading system. The 6-foot-5, 302-pound lineman is considered by most as one of the better guards on the open market.

Though older and with less upside than Grubbs, Mathis would represent a solid replacement at a more reasonable cost. A product of the University of Alabama, Mathis was a teammate to Johnson, who signed a four-year contract with the San Diego Chargers on Wednesday.

That means Newsome — also an Alabama alum — is very familiar with the veteran guard.

“I would love to play for a guy like Ozzie,” said Mathis, who revealed Newsome is a family friend. “If I didn’t want to play for him, I wouldn’t be taking the visit. I like what the Ravens do and I like what Ozzie has always done, so I’m taking this visit and seeing how things play out.”

Multiple reports say the Ravens also have interest in former Texans right tackle Eric Winston and will welcome him to Owings Mills for a visit. The 28-year-old Winston was surprisingly cut earlier this week after six seasons in Houston.

Putting aside the price tag that the talented Winston would demand, his potential addition is an interesting notion considering current right tackle Michael Oher has two years remaining on the original five-year deal he signed as a rookie.

The Ravens seemingly signaled they didn’t think Oher was cut out for the left tackle position by signing veteran Bryant McKinnie last August, so it’s difficult envisioning Oher moving back to the left side. For what it’s worth, Oher played guard in his first season at Ole Miss, but it’s unclear whether the Ravens would consider moving the 2009 first-round pick to the interior line.

McKinnie has one year remaining on his current contract.

To hear Mathis’ full interview with WNST.net’s Glenn Clark on Wednesday afternoon, click HERE.

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Ravens free agents Grubbs, Redding taking visits elsewhere

Posted on 13 March 2012 by Luke Jones

Two Ravens free agents have already scheduled visits with other teams after failing to come to terms on new contracts prior to hitting the open market on Tuesday afternoon.

Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs has scheduled a Wednesday visit with the New Orleans Saints, according to multiple reports. With Saints guard Carl Nicks the top interior lineman on the open market and rumored to be heading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Grubbs would be a suitable — and more affordable — replacement on the New Orleans offensive line.

Veteran defensive end Cory Redding was on his way to visit Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts on Tuesday evening, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. With Pagano targeting free agents from the defense he worked with as the Baltimore defensive coordinator in 2011, Redding would provide strong veteran leadership as well as a more affordable price than linebacker Jarret Johnson, who has also been rumored as a potential target for Indianapolis.

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With free agency upon us, Ravens will lean on continued growth from within in 2012

Posted on 12 March 2012 by Luke Jones

With the start of the new league year and free agency less than 24 hours away, you can already hear the cries if you listen carefully.

And you know exactly what I’m talking about if you pay attention to talk radio, internet message boards, and Twitter over the opening days of free agency every year.

When are the Ravens going to do something?

Why does Ozzie insist on sitting on his hands?

They’re definitely taking a step back this season.

Never were those exclamations louder than last season, an unprecedented period of free agency that coincided with the start of training camp after the 134-day lockout. General manager Ozzie Newsome waved goodbye to veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, and Willis McGahee in a series of cap-saving cuts, and a number of veterans including Chris Chester, Dawan Landry, and Josh Wilson found richer contracts elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Ravens’ free-agent additions for 2011 were relatively modest over the course of the preseason, adding fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode, and running back Ricky Williams in addition to re-signing right guard Marshal Yanda to a long-term contract. The “offseason” timetable was stunted by the lockout, but Newsome operated in the way he typically does — calculated and conservative. In fact, the most dynamic move he made — trading a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for veteran receiver Lee Evans — turned out to be the biggest failure.

The history lesson is worth repeating as the Ravens embark on free agency for the 17th time in franchise history. Projected to have approximately $14.45 million in salary cap space (before tendering restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents), Newsome will devote much of that to retaining as many of his own free agents as he can.

Of Baltimore’s 12 unrestricted free agents, five were starters last season, meaning the Ravens could be looking at more significant roster turnover than you’d like from an AFC North championship team that was one touchdown catch from advancing to the Super Bowl.

Expecting a dramatic splash of throwing money at elite free agents such as wide receiver Vincent Jackson or outside linebacker Mario Williams is only setting yourself up for disappointment. Even in the years in which he’s had the most cap room, Newsome rarely targets the players grabbing the headlines in the opening days of free agency, instead focusing on keeping his own and laying plans for value free agents that fulfill a need without eating up precious cap room.

As was the case last season, the Ravens will look for continued growth from within to aid in their quest for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Entering the 2011 season, Terrence Cody, Ed Dickson, and Dennis Pitta were well-known draft picks from the previous season but had yet to emerge as starting-caliber players in the NFL. Even bigger question marks surrounded Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams before they became legitimate starting cornerbacks for one of the league’s top defenses. And fighting serious doubts after a poor preseason, wide receiver Torrey Smith set franchise rookie records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.

Their contributions were as critical as any free-agent acquisition the Ravens made en route to a 12-4 record and their first division title in five years.

This season, the Ravens will potentially look to younger players such as defensive ends Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, offensive lineman Jah Reid, and linebackers Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Albert McClellan to help fill potential voids left behind by free agents Cory Redding, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Jarret Johnson, and Jameel McClain. Of course, the Ravens will add new pieces via free agency and next month’s draft to fill some of those needs, but it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll need to lean on some combination of the aforementioned players for expanded roles in 2012.

After tendering their restricted free agents and exclusive rights players, the Ravens will be left with somewhere between $6 million and $7 million to address their own unrestricted free agents and shop the open market. It doesn’t take an economics major to realize that money will only go so far.

But, as he usually does, Newsome will make the most of it.

As the frenzy of free agency begins on Tuesday and the big names start coming off the board — possibly even a few from the Ravens’ own backyard leaving for greener pastures — remember many of the biggest factors determining how the Ravens fare in 2012 already reside in Owings Mills.

It may get ugly, with many of their unrestricted free agents not expected to return, but Newsome and the Ravens never strive to “win” the first week of free agency. They’ll look closely for that under-the-radar talent that nobody is talking about right now. And, as always, the Ravens will plan to shine during April’s draft.

By the time July arrives, they’ll address the offensive line and the linebacker position in some form as well as add a few pieces in other areas to optimize a team that was only a few tenths of a second away from going to the Super Bowl back in January.

Just remember that when you or someone else feels the urge to panic and ask if Newsome is asleep at the wheel over the next week or so.

To borrow an expression from another era and another sport here in Baltimore, it’s “The Raven Way” of doing business.

And if history is any indication, it’s worked pretty well.

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Stay or leave: Forecasting the fate of Ravens’ free agents

Posted on 08 March 2012 by Luke Jones

With free agency set to begin on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m., it’s time to predict who remains and who departs among the Ravens’ 12 unrestricted free agents, four restricted free agents, and seven exclusive rights free agents.

As of Thursday afternoon, the 2012 salary cap had yet to be set, but most reports indicate it will remain right around the $120 million used for the 2011 season. The Ravens are projected to have somewhere between $11 and $12 million in cap space, depending on what the final cap number will be.

Franchise tag

RB Ray Rice: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens have until July 15 to reach a long-term agreement with Rice or he will play for the $7.7 million salary mandated by the franchise tag for running backs.

Unrestricted free agents

G Ben Grubbs: LEAVES
Skinny: General manager Ozzie Newsome expressed optimism at the NFL Combine, but the Ravens won’t engage in a bidding war when Grubbs hits the open market. 

C Matt Birk: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens will meet with Birk’s agent Joe Linta next week and could sign the veteran to a cap-friendly, short-term deal to finish his career in Baltimore. 

LB Jarret Johnson: LEAVES
Skinny: Despite little depth at outside linebacker, the Ravens appear ready to move on and won’t be able to afford Johnson in a thin market for linebackers. 

LB Jameel McClain: LEAVES
Skinny: Assuming the Ravens do not strike a deal for Grubbs, some of that money could be allocated to retain McClain, but other teams historically throw too much money at Baltimore linebackers in the open market. 

DE Cory Redding: STAYS
Skinny: Though third-year defensive lineman Arthur Jones could step into the starting lineup, Redding might have more value to the Ravens than other potential suitors at this stage in his career. 

LB Brendon Ayanbadejo: STAYS
Skinny: With the lack of depth at inside linebacker and Ayanbadejo’s ability in pass coverage, the Ravens will hold onto the 35-year-old at a lower rate than the four-year contract he signed with the team in 2008. 

S Tom Zbikowski: LEAVES
Skinny: After four years serving primarily as a backup, the former Notre Dame product is looking for an opportunity to start elsewhere and doesn’t bring enough to the table as a special teams player to warrant overpaying. 

S Haruki Nakamura: STAYS
Skinny: In the same position as Zbikowski, Nakamura’s versatility as a defensive back as well as his special teams prowess will force the Ravens to pony up a little extra to keep him in Baltimore. 

OL Andre Gurode: LEAVES
Skinny: With the Ravens looking to select an interior lineman or two in April’s draft, the five-time Pro Bowl center will continue his career elsewhere. 

DT Brandon McKinney: STAYS
Skinny: A solid member of the defensive line rotation, McKinney won’t figure to draw a ton of interest on the open market, and the Ravens want to maintain their depth up front. 

TE Kris Wilson: LEAVES
Skinny: Adding a veteran tight end was a shrewd move after Todd Heap’s release last season, but Wilson’s spot will be assumed by a younger, cheaper option. 

LB Edgar Jones: LEAVES
Skinny: Injuries opened the door for Jones’ return last season, but he wouldn’t figure to fit into the team’s plans for the 2012 season. 

Restricted free agents

(The Ravens can offer a first-round, second-round, or low tender to any of these players, giving them the right to match any offer from an opposing team or to receive that team’s draft pick that matches the designation. The low tender awards a draft pick equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted.)

CB Lardarius Webb: STAYS
Skinny: Webb will receive the first-round tender worth roughly $2.75 million as the Ravens will explore a long-term agreement with the fourth-year cornerback. 

CB Cary Williams: STAYS
Skinny: A report indicated the Ravens will offer Williams a first-round tender, but the second-round designation (an estimated $1.9 million) saves money and would still deter teams from trying to pry away the biggest surprise of the 2011 season.

LB Dannell Ellerbe: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens could roll the dice and offer the low tender ($1.25 million) to the inconsistent linebacker, but that would mean they wouldn’t receive a pick (Ellerbe was an undrafted free agent) if they declined to match a potential offer sheet.

RB Matt Lawrence: LEAVES
Skinny: Even with little depth at running back behind Ray Rice, there’s no way to justify even offering the low tender to the oft-injured running back entering his fourth season.

Exclusive rights free agents

(These are players with two or fewer accrued seasons and own no negotiating rights.)

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PFW’s Mike Wilkening Says Foster Deal Helps Set Rice Parameters

Posted on 06 March 2012 by WNST Audio

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Newsome sounding more optimistic for Grubbs’ potential return to Ravens

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Luke Jones

Following the Ravens’ disappointing loss in the AFC championship game to close the 2011 season, it had been considered all but a foregone conclusion that Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs had played his last game in Baltimore.

However, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh provided a more positive spin on Friday regarding negotiations with the 2007 first-round pick. At the Ravens’ end-of-season press conference a few weeks ago, Newsome did not speak confidently about the team’s ability to sign Grubbs but offered more optimism at the NFL rookie combine in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon.

The Ravens must still decide whether they want to allocate so much money to the guard position after signing fellow Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to a long-term deal last August, but Newsome doesn’t appear ready to throw in the towel on the former Auburn product.

“Ben is a player that we would love to have back in Baltimore,” Newsome said. “I think we’ve had some conversation with Pat Dye, his agent, already. We will see how things work out between now and the beginning of free agency on March 13.”

In order to clear enough room with the salary cap to offer enough money to entice Grubbs to stay, the Ravens will need to make several cuts, which Newsome acknowledged on Friday. The most likely candidates to be released include cornerback Domonique Foxworth, wide receiver Lee Evans, and cornerback Chris Carr.

“We’ve had the opportunity to assess our roster, and we will make some moves between now and March 13 to release some players,” Newsome said. “We’ve already got one player (running back Ricky Williams) who has decided that he was going to retire. So, we have a strategy in place that will allow us to have the ability to sign players that we want to sign.”

Evans’ cap number is scheduled to be just under $6 million in 2012, and the Ravens owe him a $1 million roster bonus a few days after the start of free agency if he is retained. With a cap number of $8.6 million in 2012, Foxworth is all but certain to be cut, which would save Baltimore roughly $5.6 million from the 2012 cap.

“I have a meeting with Foxworth when we get back next Thursday, and I don’t know what his intentions are,” Newsome said.

Though not expected to be overly active in the free-agent market, both Newsome and Harbaugh painted a promising picture of the Ravens’ salary cap situation compared to last season when they had to release key veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, and Kelly Gregg prior to the start of training camp.

“You can have a lot of salary-cap room, but if you don’t have good players that doesn’t help you,” Newsome said. “We feel very good about the makeup of our roster. We have good veteran players and good young players coming along and learning from those guys. When you have good players you are in a good cap situation.”

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Ranking the Ravens’ biggest offensive needs

Posted on 13 February 2012 by Luke Jones

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.

2. Center

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)

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Veteran center Birk still unclear on football future with Ravens

Posted on 04 February 2012 by Luke Jones

Nearly two weeks after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship, Ravens center Matt Birk still can’t bring himself to watch a replay of the closing seconds of the game.

However, time heals all wounds in the 35-year-old’s mind. It wasn’t the first time the veteran offensive lineman fell one game short of the Super Bowl after he was a member of the Minnesota Vikings teams that lost conference championship games in 1998 and 2000 — two of Birk’s first three seasons in the NFL.

“You recover,” Birk said in an interview with AM 1570 WNST in Indianapolis on Friday. “I think it’ll be better once the [Super Bowl is] over. Then, everyone can move on.”

However, moving on may hold different meaning for Birk, who still hasn’t decided whether he’ll return for a 15th professional season. He is an unrestricted free agent and may have fallen short in his final chance to reach a Super Bowl when Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard attempt sailed wide left in the final seconds of Baltimore’s 23-20 loss in Foxborough.

Though the offensive line struggled in the postseason against the Texans and Patriots, Birk held up well while making 16 starts after missing the entire preseason due to arthroscopic knee surgery. The Ravens elected to sign five-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode as an insurance policy, but Birk was able to play at an effective level throughout the season.

As tempting as a final run at the Super Bowl would be for a man who’s never reached the NFL’s brightest stage, Birk has more on his mind than his health as he contemplates returning for another season. The father of six children — including a baby boy Birk’s wife Adrianna gave birth to back in December — may feel a stronger need to stay home with his family than to bang heads with 300-pound defensive linemen next fall.

“The first thing I’ve got to make sure is what’s best for my family,” said Birk, who plans go on vacation after the Super Bowl. “Then, the second, I [need to] feel if I’m able to play at a level or a standard that’s acceptable.”

Of course, the Ravens must decide if they want to retain Birk’s services or go in a different direction next season. With Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs also set to become an unrestricted free agent, general manager Ozzie Newsome is faced with difficult decisions in trying to improve an offensive line than struggled at times while maintaining the continuity that also helps a unit as years go by.

Even if Birk decides he wants to play one more season, the Ravens could try to re-sign the veteran Gurode — who’s expressed a desire to return to Baltimore — or explore other avenues for younger options at center.

“I will say this: Before we line up and play in 2012, there will be another center on this football team in some capacity – free agency, draft, or whatever,” Newsome said at the Ravens’ end-of-season press conference.

Should the Ravens find another answer at the center position, it’s unclear whether they’d want to retain Birk as a backup to a player who essentially took his job. However, Birk’s professionalism and reputation in the locker room would make him the perfect one-year stopgap if the Ravens draft a center in need of a season to grow before assuming starting duties.

Active in the community with his Hike Foundation and reading programs throughout the Baltimore area, Birk was in Indianapolis this weekend as a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, an honor that recognizes community service as well as excellence on the field. Despite being a Minnesota native and having played the first 11 seasons of his career for his hometown Vikings, Birk has felt a strong bond with the community since joining the Ravens in 2009.

And it’d be difficult to leave so late in his career.

“That’d be tough at this point in my life with six little kids,” Birk said. “It definitely takes its toll. The people we’ve met in Maryland and the love they’ve shown us and the way they welcomed us, it’s been absolutely fantastic. Obviously, if I decide I want to play again, I hope it’s with the Ravens. It is a top-notch organization.”

To hear the entire interview with Matt Birk on radio row at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, click HERE.

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Even after devastating loss, State of the Ravens is solid

Posted on 01 February 2012 by Peter Dilutis

OWINGS MILLS: The braintrust of the Baltimore Ravens was on display in Owings Mills as Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome, Dick Cass, and John Harbaugh met with the media Wednesday afternoon.

While several references to the now infamous Lee Evans drop made it clear that these men are not yet over what happened in Foxborough on January 22, the top decision makers in the organization displayed confidence that the Ravens are headed in the right direction.

“I’m proud of the product we’re giving Baltimore,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. “It seems like football is a passionate business in Maryland. We’re one of the top five teams as far as ratings in our home market, and that’s a good thing. They say apathy is the worst emotion and there’s not much apathy in this town about our team.”

Bisciotti was very blunt when asked what the Ravens could do next season to take the next step and get to the Super Bowl.

“Hold onto a ball,” Bisciotti said. “That’s where it was this year. It’s a game of inches. We were there.”

A big reason why the Ravens “were there” at the end against New England was because of the Joe Flacco’s performance in the AFC Championship game. Much has been made about Flacco’s contract situation and his standing as the franchise quarterback going forward. Throughout the 45 minute press conference, both Steve Bisciotti and Ozzie Newsome made it clear that they were not only planning on going forward with Flacco at the helm, but they are looking forward to reaping the benefits of his continued rise.

“Did Joe improve? Yes. And he improved after we took away some weapons that he was accustomed to in Mason and Todd Heap,” Newsome said. “He was able to improve with two young tight ends, two young receivers, a receiver that was traded to him in the middle of training camp, and a second year receiver in Anquan. There’s no doubt that Joe improved.”

“The thing that I like about Joe is that when you are in this business, you get judged on one thing: winning,” Newsome said. “Joe wins. If he continues to win and if one pass is caught, he would be in the Super Bowl. I think he’s going to win Super Bowls…a lot of them. I hope to be a part of them. He has improved, but the thing you cannot knock about Joe is that he’s a winner.”

Bisciotti chimed in with praise for his quarterback.

“People want to see fire in their athletes,” Bisciotti said.” We know Joe has it. I think he’s going to be extremely successful. I think he’s going to have rings, and he’s got 10 years in his prime to show it. I think he will be rewarded for his personality in the long-run.”

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