As usual, the Ravens have experienced more subtraction than addition in the early months of the offseason, leaving holes in their blueprint.
It's not alarming because the season doesn't begin for another five months and this is how the Ravens always operate. They let some key players go, painful as it is at times, and instead of joining the initial free agent frenzy, address their needs with draft picks and by waiting (and waiting) until the right deals appear in the marketplace. It's a relatively painstaking process. Sometimes the puzzle pieces don't come together until right before the season.
Having said that, they're facing a higher-than-usual degree-of-difficult quotient this year. Their salary-cap situation is constricted by more than $20 million in "dead money," and the free-agent talent pool has thinned considerably. As it was, the top free agents were "mediocre," according to the Giants' John Mara.
How will Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome address the team's needs to his satisfaction? That's the big question. Here is my ranking of those needs, listed in order of importance:
1. Wide receiver
If the Ravens had to line up and play right now, they would start Marlon Brown and Steve Smith, Sr., and rotate in Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro. It's a talented group, but none is a classic deep threat and Smith is the only one with starting experience.
If you believe, as I do, that the Ravens go as Joe Flacco goes, it's imperative that they add several wideouts who can either beat a defense deep or give it cause for concern. Their passing game needs it. Their quarterback needs it. This is how NFL teams roll these days, Ravens included.
The free-agent options include Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree, but I don't see the Ravens going the big-name route. If they do, the best fit is Greg Jennings, the 31-year-old former Packer and Viking who can still move the chains. He was a salary-cap cut, so he doesn't count against the Ravens in their compensatory draft pick calculus.
Meanwhile, I think this could be a year Newsome drafts a receiver early. The class is so deep they could get an impact guy, a potential starter, in the first or second round.
2. Tight end
As of now, the starter is Crockett Gillmore, who caught just 10 passes as a rookie in 2014 but finished strong, exceeding expectations for what he could contribute as a receiver. But he is known more for his blocking. To bolster their balance, the Ravens could use a receiving tight end.
Obviously, they're rooting for Dennis Pitta to return from a second hip injury, but they know they can't count on it. So what do they do? This could be the toughest of their needs to fill. Some mock drafts have them taking Maxx Williams, the top tight end in the draft, but he's liable to be gone by the time they pick. Meanwhile, the free-agent pool is down to the dregs. Jermaine Gresham, the former Bengal, would be interesting if he weren't coming off back surgery.
I see the Ravens making a trade, but it might not be for a bona fide starter. Gillmore may have the chance to show that his fast finish in 2014 was the start of something.
They're set for starters with Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, but they need a solid No. 3 who could also start if needed. I expect Newsome to draft a potential candidate for that role in one of the first three rounds, because it's not clear Webb or Smith will be on the team in 2016 and he needs to plan long-term for that. He might also sign a serviceable veteran just before training camp.
4. Backup quarterback
Tyrod Taylor's departure leaves Keith Wenning as the only quarterback other than Flacco. Wenning, a 2014 sixth-round draft pick, has never suited up for a game. It's not a pressing need because Flacco has never missed a game, but you do have to be prepared for the possibility, so the Ravens need someone with experience. The options include Michael Vick, Tavaris Jackson and Matt Schaub. Try not to get too excited.
5. Defensive line
The departures of Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee led to the re-signings of Chris Canty and Lawrence Guy, but the Ravens still need to bolster their depth. They're excited about what Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore can do, but both are coming off serious injuries. I'm thinking a post-June 1 salary-cap cut could address this.