A year ago, there was no doubt about what stood at the top of the Ravens' offseason must-fix list. Their offensive line needed major work, an overhaul, after a disastrous 2013.
How did the front office, led by General Manager Ozzie Newsome, engineer the overhaul? Not with bold, headline-grabbing moves so much as a batch of subtler ones.
Newsome upgraded the center position with a trade, giving up only a fifth-round draft pick. He let the starting right tackle depart via free agency and replaced him by promoting from within. He ponied up the cash to re-sign the starting left tackle, a pending free agent. He counted on both starting guards getting healthier.
He did not – repeat, did not – use the draft to address the issue. Nor did he reel in a big-money, big-name free agent.
The combination of semi-under-the-radar moves worked nicely, as the Ravens offensive line turned things around and graded out as one of the NFL's best in 2014.
Now, another area of the roster sits atop the Ravens' offseason must-fix list. Their secondary had major problems in 2014, partly due to injuries and partly due to key personnel losses. In a way, the season ended up as a testament to the fact that you can only go so far with a patchwork secondary.
If the Ravens are going to rank among the AFC's top contenders in 2015, the front office needs to get the back end of the defense straightened out. How might Newsome and his crew do that? I'm thinking there are hints in how they addressed the offensive line a year ago.
Don't expect them to use their top draft pick on a defensive back. Oh, they might if their draft board points to it when they're "on the clock." But they're just as likely to take a wide receiver, a tight end, a pass rusher or, well, a player at any other position.
The notion that the draft contains the answer is dubious, especially with the Ravens picking so late in the first round. They've expended two first-round picks and a third-round pick on defensive backs since 2011 and still had problems in 2014. Many young players need time to percolate at those positions.
As for the idea that they might reel in a big-name free agent defensive back, that's not likely to happen, either. For starters, the Ravens don't have the salary cap room to make that kind of splash. Also, if you've noticed, they're far more likely to spend big money on retaining their top players rather than grabbing someone else's.
Here's what I see them doing to fix the secondary:
1) Count on key injured players getting healthier, starting with cornerback Jimmy Smith, whose season-ending foot injury was a setback from which the unit never recovered. Asa Jackson's return could also help, but any plan to improve begins with re-installing Smith as a "shutdown" corner.
2) Retain cornerback Lardarius Webb with a contract extension that lowers his 2015 salary cap figure. His age, injury history and reported high cap figure ($12 million) generate speculation about his being dropped, but it doesn't make sense. The cap savings would be minimal, reportedly just $2 million. Also, Webb was healthy and effective down the stretch in 2014. If you're trying to build your cadre of quality DBs, why get rid of one of your best? Webb and Smith would give the Ravens solid starting corners in 2015.
3) Find a safety on the open market. Newsome has previously gone that route and landed starters such as Bernard Pollard, James Ihedigbo and Will Hill, none of whom were high-dollar guys. I wouldn't be surprised to see Newsome also bring in a veteran cornerback that way this year.
4) Hope for growth from within. A year ago, no one imagined Rick Wagner could handle the starting right tackle job so well. And remember, Jimmy Smith didn't look like a star a few years into his career. Some young players take longer to develop. Matt Elam, a former first-round pick who lost his starting job in 2014, is testing the Ravens' patience, but they're going to keep coaching him and hope he becomes a significant contributor. Same goes with other young guys such as safety Terrence Brooks, whose rookie season ended with a knee injury, and cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who flashed promise. As with the offensive line a year ago, most of the fix is already on the roster. By getting some players heathy and more out of others, along with a dash of new blood, the Ravens are hoping their secondary can raise its game in 2015, just as the line did in 2014.