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Eisenberg: People Seem Completely Unaware Of How Much Change Ravens Have Undergone


The Ravens are unabashedly optimistic about what lies ahead.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we will contend for a championship next season," Head Coach John Harbaugh said in March.

"I feel good about where we are," President Dick Cass told The Baltimore Sun.

In the great body of NFL opinion, there are others who agree. ESPN's Sal Paolantonio told my colleague Ryan Mink at the league meetings in March that he believes the Ravens will return to the AFC title game in 2017.

Overall, though, the prevailing view of the team seems more circumspect. Sports books list the Ravens at around 40-1 to make the Super Bowl. That's a middle-of-the-pack figure.

The rationale for those modest expectations is no secret. The Ravens have finished over .500 just once in the past four seasons. They're a year removed from going 5-11. They're still searching for several starters after finishing 8-8 in 2016. It's not clear how things will work out.

The rest of the league still respects them, a byproduct of their lengthy run of success, which includes 10 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl triumphs in a 15-year span. But their recent shortfalls have inevitably generated skepticism.

Why are the Ravens more optimistic than others about their 2017 prospects? I think it boils down to this: Others are basing their uncertain projections on the Ravens' recent teams, a fair calculus, but they might not be aware how completely the Ravens have cleaned house, moving on from those underperforming squads.

That team that went 5-11 in 2015? It's gone, man.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration. A few traces remain. But not many.

Every NFL team turns over a chunk of its lineup and roster every year, but the Ravens have undertaken an accelerated program of change since their worst season under Harbaugh ended 16 months ago.

Check out what's gone from the 2015 Ravens: the leading rusher; the top six wide receivers; four-fifths of the starting offensive line; the entire starting secondary except for Jimmy Smith; the entire defensive front except for Brandon Williams, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs. (Suggs was injured for most of 2015, but I still list him as a starter.)

The only 2015 offensive and defensive starters still holding the same jobs are Joe Flacco, Marshal Yanda, and the four defensive guys listed above.

Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith, Courtney Upshaw, Kendrick Lewis, Shareece Wright, Lardarius Webb and Will Hill III are gone from the defense. (Webb is returning as a utility man in the secondary.)

Justin Forsett, Kyle Juszczyk, Kamar Aiken, Steve Smith Sr., Chris Givens, Jeremy Zuttah, Kelechi Osemele and Rick Wagner are gone from the offense. (Tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams, running back Buck Allen and linemen Ryan Jensen, John Urschel and James Hurst all made starts in 2015 and remain on the roster, but they're currently penciled in as reserves.)

I don't know about you, but I wasn't aware the Ravens had changed 73 percent of their starting lineup over the past 16 months.

A sense of continuity will persist because of Flacco, Yanda, and Suggs, but big picture, the Ravens are transitioning to an almost entirely new crew. And though there's no telling how it will perform, the Ravens believe it's an upgrade, especially on the defensive side, where they've made quite an investment.

Remember what Harbaugh said after the loss to the Steelers that ended the Ravens' playoff hopes last December?

"We can be a great football team, but we're not there yet," he said.

With that one, final word – "yet" – he suggested the Ravens were in the middle of a project, yet to complete it. Months later, they still have holes to fill but clearly believe they're even farther along, with next week's draft almost certain to bolster their optimism.

They'll still have 40-1 odds when the 2017 season begins, regardless of what they do. It's nothing personal. Once you miss the playoffs a few times, you have to re-establish your bona fides as a contender before anyone believes you.

The new-look Ravens already believe, it seems, and honestly, how else are they supposed to feel?

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