The 2014 has come to a close.
The Ravens came within a few plays of advancing to their third AFC championship in four seasons, but the top-seeded New England Patriots managed to pull off a comeback victory to end Baltimore's season.
Now the focus shifts to another offseason, and here are the 10 biggest questions facing the Ravens over the next few months:
Which free agents can Ravens keep?Just like every season, the Ravens have a number of key players set to hit the open free agency market. Of the 31 pending restricted and unrestricted free agents, headlining this year's list are wide receiver Torrey Smith, running back Justin Forsett, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and tight end Owen Daniels. They have all said that they hope to stay with the Ravens, but Baltimore is typically close to the salary cap without much room to hand out big contracts. The Ravens were able to keep most of their prized free agents last year by re-signing Eugene Monroe, Dennis Pitta, Daryl Smith and Jacoby Jones, and they could pull off a similar offseason this year. It all depends on dollars.
Extension for Ngata?One way to help free up some salary cap space is to work out a contract extension with defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. The veteran defender is heading into the final year of his contract and will be a significant hit (reportedly $16 million) against the cap. To help soften that blow, the Ravens could try to work out an extension with Ngata like they did last year with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. The Ravens would then free up some money in 2015, and Ngata could end up with another big contract to likely make him a Raven for life. The Ravens were unsuccessful at trying to work out an extension with Ngata last offseason, but he could be more willing to negotiate this time around heading into the final year of his contract because the Ravens have more leverage with less dead money if they released him.
Any players retire?Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. already put this to rest for himself, announcing on Instagram after the game that he plans to return next year. Defensive end Chris Canty, however, told reporters after the loss that he will consider hanging it up this offseason. Canty has played 10 seasons in his career, and he also deal with some injuries this year. The 32-year-old defender has plans to enter the broadcasting profession when his career ends, and he will have to decide if this is the time to make the move to the studio.
How do Ravens help the secondary?An area where the Ravens need some reinforcements is in the secondary, where the group was hit hard with injuries this season. Cornerback Lardarius Webb struggled with a back problem for much of the season, and then cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with a season-ending foot sprain in Week 8. Smith will have to work his way back from the Lisfranc sprain, which has a long recovery process. Even if Smith makes a full recovery in time for training camp, the Ravens will likely need to add some new pieces to solidify the unit. Cornerback could be a high priority in this year's draft or on the free agent market.
How do Ravens recover from injuries?The injury bug struck hard in Baltimore this year. The Ravens finished the season with 19 players on injured reserve, including several key starters. The Under Armour Performance Center will be busy with players rehabbing during the offseason months, including starters like Jimmy Smith, right tackle Rick Wagner and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens never used injuries as an excuse this year, but they need to get their team healthy again to be ready to make a run next season.
Will Dennis Pitta play again?As Pitta works to recover from his second serious hip injury in as many seasons, the question still remains whether he will be able to make a full recovery. Pitta and the Ravens have maintained that he hopes to play again and has been given no indication from doctors that his hip injuries are career threatening. Pitta suffered a fractured and dislocated hip on his same hip in back-to-back years, but he could return next season depending on how he reacts to the months of rehab.
What does the backfield look like?The Ravens' backfield went through a significant transition this year, as the team cut Pro Bowler Ray Rice and Forsett emerged as a quality starter. Forsett is now set to hit the open market after the best season of his career, and it remains to be seen if the Ravens will be able to retain him. Forsett said after Saturday's loss that he would love to stay in Baltimore. Even if the Ravens keep Forsett, they may still have lingering questions in the backfield. Backup Bernard Pierce had the worst output of his career, rushing for just 366 yards. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro showed promise before landing on injured reserve with a foot injury. With Forsett's looming free agency, Pierce's struggles and Taliaferro's injury, the Ravens could look to add another piece to the backfield.
New backup quarterback?The importance of a backup quarterback often goes unnoticed when the starter hasn't missed a game throughout his seven-year career. Even with Joe Flacco's durability, the Ravens still want to have a capable backup behind him. Tyrod Taylor has done the job the last four years, but he's set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens could try to bring back Taylor, but he may look for a team where he has a better chance to compete for playing time. The only other quarterback currently on the roster is rookie Keith Wenning, who spent the season on the practice squad. Wenning had a season to learn behind Flacco and Taylor, and the Ravens could move him up to the No. 2 role next year. They could also look for a veteran backup who has more experience, and bring him in on a short-term deal.
Any free agency splashes?The Ravens have a history of waiting out the initial spending spree during free agency, but General Manager Ozzie Newsome isn't afraid to make a splash when he sees a target who fits the "right player, right price" philosophy. He did that last season when Steve Smith became available, and that signing proved to be one of the best free agency acquisitions in football. Newsome and the front office will certainly keep a close eye on veteran players who could get released and then acquired for a bargain, which also helps rack up compensatory picks.
What is the priority in the draft?The Ravens' draft spot was finalized this weekend after losing to the Patriots. They will select toward the end of the first round at No. 26, a familiar spot for a team that usually makes the playoffs. Baltimore has several needs to fill, and could consider using the pick on a corner, running back, tight end or receiver.