There are plenty of opinions about what caused the Ravens to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs in 2013. Here are some I've heard a lot:
They missed Ray Lewis' leadership. They missed Anquan Boldin. Joe Flacco had a down year. They lacked drive after winning the Super Bowl the year before.
I give some of those (Boldin) more credence than others (leadership, hangover), but to me, the biggest problem for the 2013 Ravens was their offensive line. Its inability to open holes or consistently protect Flacco was a common thread in many games and produced repercussions in other areas, such as the defense staying on the field too long and yielding late. The Ravens battled a lot of issues all year, but the O-line was the biggest, and thus, it's the top priority as the rebuilding of the team for 2014 begins in earnest with today's opening of free agency.
The Ravens also need pass catchers, a free safety and look thin at inside linebacker – important additions, all. But much as the mantra in 2012 was "the team, the team, the team," the mantra right now should be "the line, the line, the line."
The organization has already moved boldly to start trying to fix the offense, bringing in a new coordinator with a shiny track record and several new position coaches.
But for Gary Kubiak's blueprint to produce the desired uptick, it needs a solid foundation, i.e., a line that consistently protects Flacco and opens holes for backs. The last time the Ravens' line did that, the team went on a Super Bowl run. I'm not saying an improved line will produce the same result – that's crazy. But it would give the Ravens a better chance of getting back to the playoffs.
Here are some key steps they can take:
- Retain Eugene Monroe. It would be perhaps the most important move of this offseason. The Ravens have struggled to identify "the answer" at left tackle since Jonathan Ogden retired. Monroe, 26, isn't another Ogden, but he is solid and durable, with a high upside, and would provide ballast for the whole unit, both now and down the line. I understand why the Ravens balked at paying him $11.65 million in 2014 under the franchise tag, but he plays a costly position. The Ravens won't regret keeping him, even if they have to pay more than they want.
- Do more than pencil in Kelechi Osemele at left guard. Write it in ink. He played right tackle as a rookie and did fine, but he has the size and physicality the Ravens want in the interior. That's his best spot.
- Bring in a veteran center. Although Gino Gradkowski struggled at times in 2013, the Ravens like his potential as a long range solution. (Matt Birk didn't start a game until his third NFL season.) But a free agent signing such as Brian de la Puente (Saints) or David Baas (Giants) would bring more consistency in 2014 without breaking the bank.
- Sign a veteran right tackle. The Ravens would love to put a young guy there. Rick Wagner is already on the roster. The draft could provide another candidate. But if fixing the line is your top priority, you need to invest. There are several potential starters on the market.
As free agency opens, here's what my gut is telling me about the Ravens' unrestricted free agents:
Daryl Smith – The veteran inside linebacker was a great fit, but he might want to test the market after seeing D'Qwell Jackson sign a $22 million deal. Chances of him returning to Baltimore: 55 percent.
Jacoby Jones – With his speed and playmaking skills, he will have suitors. The Ravens would love to bring him back, but they want to pay him as a kick returner, as opposed to a combo returner/receiver. If another team is willing to pay him more to do both, his price might be too high. Chances of him returning to Baltimore in 2014: 45 percent
Art Jones – One of the Ravens' nice guys has made himself a solid contributor with many suitors, driving his price out of the Ravens' range. Chances of him returning to Baltimore: 3 percent.
Corey Graham – He is smart, tough, versatile and enjoys playing for the Ravens, but if he is set on being a starting cornerback, that won't happen here. Chances of him returning to Baltimore: 55 percent.
Michael Oher – Bringing him back has not been a priority for the Ravens, but there are positive feelings on both sides of this relationship. Chances of him returning to Baltimore: 35 percent.
James Ihedigbo – He was an unsung hero in 2013, but going forward, the Ravens want a ball-hawking free safety to pair with Matt Elam. Chances of him returning to Baltimore: 15 percent.
Ed Dickson, Terrence Cody, Dallas Clark, Jeromy Miles, Bernard Scott – The first two are high draft picks who did not blossom as envisioned. Chances of either returning to Baltimore: 10 percent.