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With the Ravens’ 2010 campaign coming to a halt via a 31-24 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, here are 10 questions to consider heading into the offseason.
1. Who (among the free agents) will be back?
The Ravens went into the playoffs with a sense of urgency. One-third of their roster was over 30 years old. And nearly half of their 53-man roster is due to hit free agency. That includes eight starters – cornerback Chris Carr, guard Chris Chester, safety Dawan Landry, linebacker Jameel McClain, fullback Le’Ron McClain, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Josh Wilson and offensive tackle Marshal Yanda. Billy Cundiff and Sam Koch also have expiring deals. So, if a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached between owners and the NFL Players’ Association, the Ravens have a lot of personnel decisions to make before a 2011 kickoff.
2. Who will retire?
After Saturday’s game, wideout Derrick Mason would not take the bait regarding his future. The 14-year veteran – and oldest Ravens player at 36 – said “this team will be back [to the playoffs],” not “I’ll be back.” Mason has hinted at retirement in each of the last two seasons, and while he is still an elite player, Baltimore’s eldest statesman will be mulling his career path over the next few weeks. Linebacker Ray Lewis is 35, but he hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down. In addition to Mason and Lewis, safety Ed Reed is still cognizant of a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder. The “R-word” had been in his vocabulary in the past, as well.
3. What changes are on the coaching front?
First of all, Head Coach John Harbaugh’s contract is up for an extension and there were reports that the Ravens were working on one with him last month. But there could be some change underneath Harbaugh, as the coaching carousel rotates for all 32 NFL teams at this time of year. Harbaugh has some tough decisions to make. Fans and pundits have pointed the finger at the coordinators, but there are also position coaches to consider. While it would be nice to enter 2011 with everything copacetic on the coaching front, the reality is that coaches change on a yearly basis when a team doesn’t meet its own championship expectations.
4. Will there even be a season in 2011?
The owners and NFLPA have a lot of work to do in order to ensure that there are games next year. On March 4, the current CBA expires, and we could be seeing several months without football. There are several sticky issues that need to be discussed, such as an 18-game season, rookie wage scale, retired player benefits, and so on. Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti and President Dick Cass will be busy to say the least.
5. How much is Haloti valued?
Having finished the final year of his rookie contract with 65 tackles and 5 ½ sacks, Ngata is a priority to re-sign for the Ravens. A starting point could be 2010 rookie Ndamukong Suh, the second-overall pick who signed a five-year deal reportedly worth $68 million, including $40 million guaranteed. Ngata is one of the NFL’s top defensive players, not just linemen.
6. What do the Ravens go after in the draft?
Offensive tackle? Cornerback? Wide receiver? Pass rusher? Even if professional football is an uncertainty for 2011, the draft is still happening. The Ravens could address a few positions in the early rounds, even though General Manager Ozzie Newsome will always take the best player available. With Jared Gaither’s future in question, the Ravens could select another tackle to let Marshal Yanda move back to guard. They could add depth at cornerback, where free agency could leave them thin. Mason, Anquan Boldin, Donte’ Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are all 30-plus. And what about pass rusher? Paul Kruger has made his contributions as he made the tough switch from linebacker to defensive tackle, but Sergio Kindle might not play football again. The Ravens might do well to amplify their pressure with a draft pick.
7. What to do with Sergio?
Kindle lost his rookie season after he tumbled down two flights of stairs back in July, suffering a serious head injury, then further damaged his reputation with the Ravens when he was busted for driving under the influence in December. Taking any character questions out of the scenario, it is uncertain if Kindle will be able to play football again from a medical standpoint. The Ravens used their top draft pick on the Texas product, and he hasn’t been able to return anything on the field. Should Kindle return to the field, he could help any club’s pass rush. Whether that’s in Baltimore remains to be seen.
8. What will the receiving corps look like?
With Mason, Boldin, Houshmandzadeh and Stallworth getting up there in years, the Ravens need another infusion of speed and youth in their receiving corps. Rookie David Reed provided a few flashes this season, but he’s just one player. The Ravens improved their weapons cache around quarterback Joe Flacco in 2010, but the talent did not yield a deep playoff run. Flacco will need more weapons down the road, and at this point, only Boldin and Reed are certainties to be on the 2011 roster.
9. Where does Flacco go from here?
Flacco is coming off a career season, setting personal bests in yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6). But, he has yet to reach the elite status of NFL signal-callers, as evidenced by the bad interception in Pittsburgh or the two overthrows on the Ravens’ final drive. The Ravens put a lot of resources behind Flacco this past year, and he got a lot out of them. Flacco still has another step to take, but his dedication and demeanor leave little doubt that he will.
10. How do you beat the Steelers?
Two of the past three years, the Ravens were ousted from the playoffs by their AFC North rival. Ben Roethlisberger has won the past seven games against Baltimore. And Hines Ward just keeps smiling. The Ravens can’t do anything about their division, so they are going to have to figure out a way to defeat the Steelers with Roethlisberger under center. Both teams are built similarly, with stout defenses and solid rushing attacks, but the Ravens will certainly spend some time this offseason to pinpoint what can tip the scales in their favor.