The Ravens are in a good spot after winning their first Lombardi Trophy since 2001.
But now they're back to work preparing for the 2013 season, and here's a look at the 10 biggest questions facing the Ravens this offseason.
1. Can Ravens work out a long-term deal with Joe Flacco?Signing the reigning Super Bowl MVP to a new contract is the clear-cut top priority for the Ravens this offseason. He is the cornerstone of the franchise, and is vital to lock up for the foreseeable future. The only question is whether the Ravens have to use the one-year franchise tag on him or are able to reach a new contract before the March 4 deadline. Getting Flacco squared away is the first step this offseason, and then everything else falls in line. If the Ravens do end up having to franchise Flacco, that will create a bigger hit against the salary cap this year, which could make it tougher to re-sign some of their other unrestricted free agents.
2. How do the Ravens replace Ray Lewis?The Ravens are set to undergo a major organizational shift with the retirement of the legendary linebacker. For the first time in team history, the Ravens will head into a season without No. 52 as the face of the franchise. His retirement leaves a void in the locker room, which will likely be filled by committee, rather than one person. The defensive leadership responsibility with be passed to players like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Bernard Pollard and possibly Ed Reed (if he* *returns). Other players like Ray Rice and Flacco will also share in leadership roles, although nobody has quite the same flare for motivating the team as Lewis.
3. Does Ed Reed return?Not only do the Ravens have to offset the loss of Lewis, but they could also potentially lose another future Hall of Famer in Reed. The veteran safety is an unrestricted free agent and says that he could see himself playing another few seasons, despite dealing with numerous injuries in recent years. The Ravens have been emphatic in their desire to keep Reed in Baltimore, but it's unknown what kind of contract he will command. Reed currently does not have an agent, and he plans to sit down with General Manager Ozzie Newsome in a couple of weeks to discuss his future. Reed is highly respected in the locker room, and the Ravens have expressed interest in keeping him in the organization once his playing days are over. That arrangement could be an attraction for Reed to stay with the Ravens, the only team he's played for during his 11 NFL seasons.
4. Who else retires?Lewis was the only player on the roster who announced that this year would be his final NFL season. But the Ravens have a handful of other veterans who could decide to cap off their career with a Super Bowl win, and Newsome mentioned at the State of the Ravens address that the team has multiple veterans mulling retirement. The most notable name is center Matt Birk, who has started every game for the Ravens over the last four seasons. Birk considered retirement last year and said after the Super Bowl that he'll take a few weeks to make a decision about next year. Veteran guard Bobbie Williams could be another candidate, as he struggled with an ankle injury throughout the year and didn't play much down the stretch. The Ravens could also get surprised by somebody, just like they did last year when running back Ricky Williams unexpectedly called it a career a few weeks after the season.
5. Can the Ravens keep Ellerbe, Kruger or Williams?In addition to Reed, the Ravens have three other unrestricted free agents who were all critical pieces of the defense. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams are all set to hit the open market, and they will be tough for the Ravens to re-sign. If the Ravens lose all three players, that will bring a significant change to the defense. Ellerbe could be the most likely player to re-sign because inside linebackers typically command less money and because the Ravens are already losing one of their starting inside linebackers with Lewis retiring.
6. How does Terrell Suggs recover?The veteran outside linebacker admittedly wasn't the same player this year as he was in 2011 when he won Defensive Player of the Year. He made a miraculous recovery after tearing his Achilles tendon in the offseason and only missed the first six weeks. Once he returned, Suggs then tore his biceps, which limited him in the second half of the season. Suggs finished the regular season with a career-low two sacks and then added two more in the playoffs. He was never at full strength this season, and the 10-year veteran will now use the offseason to fully heal and try to return to form by the start of next year.
7. What happens with Anquan Boldin?The veteran receiver was key to the Ravens run through the playoffs, hauling in 22 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns in four games. He was Flacco's go-to target, and was a big part of the quarterback's success. But Boldin is due to make more than $6 million next year, and will be a $7.5 million hit against the salary cap. The Ravens could choose to release Boldin in an attempt to free up cap space, and then turn to younger receivers on the roster like Tandon Doss or LaQuan Williams to fill his shoes. Boldin is a leader of the offense and one of the most respected players in the locker room, which would make it risky to cut a key contributor and leader. If the Ravens did cut Boldin, he says he would retire rather than suit up for any other team.
8. How do Ravens navigate tight salary cap?
The Ravens don't have much room to work with in terms of the salary cap, which will make it difficult to re-sign their own players or to attract other free agents. Newsome and Owner Steve Bisciotti have already said that they won't restructure contracts to lower the cap hit this year and go all-out for a repeat, so that means the Ravens will have to shed salary some other way. In addition to Boldin, another player mentioned as a possible salary-cap causality is fullback Vonta Leach. He's been a Pro Bowler both of his seasons in Baltimore, but his $4.3 million cap hit is among the top 10 on the team for a position that doesn't see many reps in today's pass-happy league.
9. What happens with the offensive line?The offensive line was a work in progress for the Ravens nearly the entire season. Then veteran Bryant McKinnie took back the starting left tackle spot in the playoffs and anchored the position for the Super Bowl run. He's a free agent now, and it's unclear if the Ravens will work to keep him in Baltimore. If McKinnie leaves, the Ravens have to decide whether they want to sign a free agent left tackle, or move Michael Oher back to the left side, and put Kelechi Osemele back at right tackle. The offensive line arrangement hinges on the left tackle spot, and McKinnie's postseason performance could have earned him another season with the Ravens if the price is right.
10. How does winning a Super Bowl change the Ravens?A driving motivation for the Ravens in recent years was the fact that they had come so close to a Super Bowl, but never actually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. That's no longer the case. Now that the Raven have won their first Super Bowl in 12 years, they will need to find a new motivation. The odds are stacked against teams repeating as champions, and the last seven Super Bowl winners haven't even won a playoff game the following season. The Ravens will have a target on their backs throughout the entire season, and they will have to go through the offseason with the same drive they had last year after coming up short in the AFC championship.