We already know one thing about the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. They're going to a look a lot different on defense.
Half of their Super Bowl secondary is gone with the departures of Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard, and another member of the unit, Ed Reed, is contemplating leaving. Both inside linebackers who started the Super Bowl also are gone with the retirement of Ray Lewis and the loss of Dannell Ellerbe. Their top pass rusher of 2012, Paul Kruger, has bolted via free agency. And my guess is there will be more changes as the offseason rolls along with its eternal salary cap juggle.
Change is routine in today's NFL, but the Ravens aren't just tweaking a defense that helped them reach the pinnacle of their sport. They're pretty much tearing it apart.
Some fans are, ahem, concerned about this, to put it mildly. The local football conversation has been pretty agitated over the past week.
On a theoretical level, I get the apprehension. Why tinker with what worked? But of course, the situation isn't nearly that simple. The Ravens' tight salary cap situation forced them into some of these changes. They didn't necessarily want to undergo such a sweeping overhaul. They had no choice.
Now that it is unfolding, however, I don't understand why the renovation project is causing such concern. Even with the season's glittering final result, the Ravens defense needed some offseason attention, didn't it? Like, maybe a lot of attention.
Let's go back over the unit's 2012 performance. It ranked 17th in the league in total defense, which is yardage allowed, dropping Baltimore out of the top 10 in that category for the first time in a decade. It gave up 77 "chunk" plays of 20 or more yards, up 32 percent from 2011.
Basically, the unit sprang leaks all season, even during the playoffs, when opponents averaged a staggering 428 yards per game and generated 21 more first downs than the Ravens offense compiled.
Yes, things were better than they sometimes appeared. The Ravens allowed just 4.0 yards per rush during the season, tied for seventh-best in the league. And yes, it was a savvy unit that buckled down in the red zone, forced plenty of turnovers and came up huge in crucial moments such as the last series of the Super Bowl and the entire AFC title game.
There's little doubt a rash of major injuries had something to do with the general falloff. Several unproven players were thrust into key roles. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees juggled lineups and combinations all season. The pieces came together just in time, for just long enough.
But stepping back and looking at the big picture, I don't think it's a bad idea at all to renovate, even on a major scale. Last year's defense generated some fine memories that will live forever, but honestly, it wasn't always that effective. Why not try some new blood going forward?
The rebuilding process has started with the signings of veteran linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, who are expected to provide more ballast in the interior. You can be sure there will be more low key additions, and maybe a splashy one. Isn't that why you clear cap space, to give you room to maneuver? Meanwhile, several cornerstones of the edifice remain in place, namely Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, and also possibly Reed, whose decision is expected soon.
As for who mans the other spots, the outline of the next generation is taking shape, including recent high draft picks such as Courtney Upshaw and Jimmy Smith, who will assume larger roles. Given how effectively lower-round picks such as Arthur Jones and Chykie Brown filled roles in 2012, expect more of them to squeeze into the picture. The Ravens will make a barrelful of draft picks next month – 12 at this point. Some puzzle pieces surely will emerge from that horde.
The front office hasn't flatly stated that it wants to get younger, faster and cheaper on that side of the ball, but that seems to be the course it is charting, and given the concerns and complaints the unit generated throughout 2012, right up to and through the Super Bowl, I say why not?