Eisenberg: Ravens Adept At Replacing Free Agents


Sometimes I think an appropriate nickname for the NFL offseason is "That Time When the Sky is Always Falling."

With the salary cap looming large, teams throughout the league constantly face crucial personnel decisions. Fans fret over the prospect of losing key players, wondering how their team could possibly field a decent squad.

But sometimes, the situation isn't quite as dire as it appears. Take what's going on with the Ravens right now.

They're tight against the cap, and with free agency about to start, it's time to decide what to do with over a dozen members of the Super Bowl-winning team, all restricted or unrestricted free agents. Other players also could be subtracted or added to make the puzzle pieces fit. It seems like a precarious situation, perhaps even a recipe for disaster, and some fans are worried. But the Ravens tend to survive these transitional periods.

Consider the situation with the defense, where four major contributors are set to become unrestricted free agents. Aside from safety Ed Reed, the players are linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and rush end Paul Kruger – a trio of fine players in their 20s whom the Ravens surely would retain if the cap weren't an issue.

For weeks, there has been nervous speculation on radio talk shows and Internet boards about how many of the three, if any, the Ravens could bring back, and what the team would miss if they're gone. It's a testament to their talents, deserving in all cases.

But let's consider where they came from, what the Ravens invested in them in the first place. It changes the outlook to a degree.

Kruger was a fairly high draft pick, a second-round selection, but he languished for several years and was seen as a disappointment before recently developing a knack for sacks. Ellerbe joined the team as an undrafted free agent, and Williams was plucked off the practice squad of the Tennessee Titans. In other words, the Ravens took players from the fringes and created solid contributors.

But while their departures would be a setback for the defense, only Williams has been a permanent, three-down starter at any point in his career. And none of the three has ever gone to the Pro Bowl.

If Ravens have to replace them, few teams are better at finding and developing new talent to replace the old, sometimes from unexpected places, as evidenced by, well, Ellerbe and Williams.

That's how you make five straight playoff appearances and win a Super Bowl, by the way.

Reed is another story, an iconic Raven, one of the best safeties in history and pretty much irreplaceable even though he is in the final years of his career. But even in that case, there's surely a plan for moving on without him. The Ravens found his recent running buddy, Bernard Pollard, when the Houston Texans lost interest and cut ties.

On the other side of the ball, with center Matt Birk retiring and tackle Bryant McKinnie an unrestricted free agent, the line certainly could be in flux. But isn't that sort of always the case?

The loss of Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs had everyone wringing their hands a year ago, but when the Ravens lined up against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, Grubbs' spot was taken by …. a rookie … who played superbly. And Kelechi Osemele wasn't even the Ravens' top draft pick in 2012. The Ravens chose him in the second round, as the draft's 60th overall selection, hardly the typical place where Super solutions are found.

A year later, they could use another left tackle, one good enough to permanently push Michael Oher to the right side, where he performs best, as we saw during the playoffs. There are other needs to address, but finding another Osemele-like keeper for the line could be crucial, and the Ravens' track record says they have a shot.

If you're smart about it, adept at identifying players who will fit your needs and/or develop in your system, you can keep that sky from falling, no matter how ominous it sometimes appears.

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