As fans check back into the NFL season, and migrate to Owings Mills, Md., to watch the Ravens kick off the 2013 season at training camp, they may not recognize the team in front of them.
It certainly isn't the same players that left the New Orleans Superdome with confetti stuck to their cleats about six months ago.
But despite the attention that has surrounded high-profile losses, there is a growing sentiment that the Ravens could actually be in a better place than they were last year at this time, or even when they beat the San Francisco 49ers.
"I think we have the potential to be better than we were last year," wide receiver Torrey Smith recently said on the NFL Network. "We've got trust in the guy up top."
The "guy up top" that Smith is referring to is General Manager Ozzie Newsome, who after many discussions with Head Coach John Harbaugh and other members of the front office, has been pulling the strings on an aggressive and innovative plan.
It's been incorrectly perceived as a post-Super Bowl plan, but was actually formulated in October of last season.
The Ravens determined that they needed to get faster and younger, particularly on defense. They needed to do a better job stopping the run, as a franchise historically built on shutting down opposing running backs finished 20th in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed per game (122.8).
Winning the Super Bowl didn't change those facts.
"We were good in the playoffs – good enough – but we weren't good in the season for us to be the kind of defense that we want to be," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said in June. "We have to be better than we were a year ago."
While many fans were still living up the Super Bowl XLVII glory, and checked out for the offseason, the Ravens went about executing their plan. Here's a timeline of the Ravens' movement this offseason:
- 2/28: Placed linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk on the Reserve/Retired list
- 3/1: Re-signed quarterback Joe Flacco
- 3/11: Traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco 49ers
- 3/12: Outside linebacker Paul Kruger signed with Cleveland Browns
- 3/13: Signed free agent defensive lineman Chris Canty
- 3/14: Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe signed with Miami Dolphins
- 3/14: Cornerback Cary Williams signed with Philadelphia Eagles
- 3/14: Terminated the contract of vested veteran safety Bernard Pollard
- 3/18: Signed free agent defensive tackle Marcus Spears
- 3/22: Safety Ed Reed signed with Houston Texans
- 3/26: Signed free agent outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil
- 3/28: Signed free agent safety Michael Huff
- 5/8: Signed unrestricted free agent tackle Bryant McKinnie
- 6/5: Signed free agent linebacker Daryl Smith
- 6/11: Waived fullback Vonta Leach
No other Super Bowl winner has ever lost as many starters from its team as the Ravens did last year. They lost eight starters from the big game, plus top sack artist Kruger. Since Feb. 3, the Ravens have added 35 new players to their active roster.
But with change comes the opportunity for growth.
The Ravens' revamped front seven has a lot of depth, experience and versatility that should go a long way in fixing the run defense. Spears is a longtime run stuffer and Canty is an interchangeable piece that should allow Haloti Ngata to move inside to a more natural position.
Baltimore should have a better pass rush. Their 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who notched only two sacks in coming back from an Achilles injury, is healthy again and slimmed down. Dumervil is a Pro Bowl quarterback chaser who had more sacks than Kruger last year. Canty adds more pass rush inside.
The Ravens' secondary is without the ball-hawking Reed, but Huff has long been considered an underrated former first-round pick on Oakland's defense, and he has versatility to play both safety positions or cornerback. The cornerback corps lost Williams but gains Lardarius Webb, who was on his way to Pro Bowl consideration before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Week 6 last year.
Former St. Louis Rams head coach and New York Giants Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who joined the Ravens coaching staff as a senior defensive assistant this offseason, was literally wowed by what he saw in practice.
"This is as good a looking football team as I've ever seen," he said.
Cornerback Corey Graham was similarly impressed after what he saw in minicamp.
"We got potential to be a great defense if everything comes together and we continue to work as hard as we possibly can," he said.
On offense, the Ravens are relying on Joe Flacco to continue his growth as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. He ended last year on a historic run with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs, and the Ravens made him their franchise signal caller soon after with a record-breaking $120 million contract.
Flacco and Baltimore are looking for a young wide receiver corps to step up for the departure of Boldin. And as of now, rookie fourth-round pick Kyle Juszczyk is slated to stand in for Leach.
Overall, the Ravens could have as many as four rookies in starting positions when they kick off the season in Denver: first-round safety Matt Elam, second-round inside linebacker Arthur Brown, third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams and Juszczyk.
"All the young guys we've been developing and working hard over the last few years, it's our time to go out there and do it," Smith said. "We just have to go work. Nothing is going to be given to us. We understand that and we have a lot to prove come the 25th."
That's what the Ravens will set off to do starting Thursday, when they hold their first full-team practice.
Baltimore's goal isn't to be the first repeat Super Bowl champions since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots. In the words of Harbaugh, it's to be better than they were yesterday, better than they were last month, better than they were last year.
"I don't think anything changes," Harbaugh said. "Every day is so valuable and every single day has such an impact. That's what makes it so exciting. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a cool challenge."