Believe it or not, Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens have a plan.
It might not have seemed like it to you when they let one of the greatest players in team history, Ed Reed, head to Houston. Or when they traded Anquan Boldin, a playoff hero and their leading receiver the past three years. Or when they said goodbye to their top tacklers from their Super Bowl season, Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe; their leader in sacks, Paul Kruger; and their co-leader in interceptions (along with Reed), Cary Williams.
If you lost count -- and no one would blame you -- the Ravens have now lost nine players who started at least one game for them last season, including inside linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk, who have retired.
Yes, there is a plan alright. Newsome, one of the NFL’s top general managers, gutted this team by design. The Ravens have been working off a similar blueprint the past couple of years actually.
This is not a cookie-cutter “In Ozzie We Trust” piece, though. Sure, I can think of few talent evaluators I would trust more if I needed to renovate my roster. Under his watch, the Ravens almost always hit on their first-round draft picks. They have a knack for finding solid players like Ellerbe and Williams whom other teams overlooked. They rarely make bad decisions when splurging on free agents.
But Newsome’s Ravens, who still don’t have much salary cap wiggle room after this mass exodus, have just started one of the most critical offseasons in team history and arguably the toughest since 2008, John Harbaugh’s first year. They are a victim of their own success, strapped by a cap that doesn’t allow them to keep many of the talents they develop, and must build a new contender.
For the Ravens to remain a perennial playoff team for five more years, Newsome and his fellow talent evaluators in the front office need to nail this draft. They will have 12 draft picks to work with, their most since 1997, giving Newsome an opportunity to move up, down and all around for some of the prospects he covets.
But he is going to have to fill immediate holes on the roster, particularly on defense, with a few of those draft picks. At least a couple might have to become core contributors down the road.
None will have to be stars right away, though. After all, Newsome still has the foundation of a championship roster in quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda, running back Ray Rice, linebacker Terrell Suggs, cornerback Lardarius Webb and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. But he needs to find useful pieces like he did a year ago with Courtney Upshaw, Kelechi Osemele and Bernard Pierce.
Newsome has a long resume filled with successful picks like that, which is why the Ravens were able to thrive after parting ways with key contributors such as Derrick Mason, Ben Grubbs, Todd Heap and Jarret Johnson during the previous two offseasons.
And by knowing how to play the compensatory pick game and letting free agents like Grubbs and Johnson (and Ellerbe and Kruger) walk, they wisely get more draft picks to work with. The Ravens selected defensive end Pernell McPhee and cornerback Chykie Brown, among others, with their compensatory picks.
Whoops, it appears I’m doing the “In Ozzie We Trust” thing after all.
My point is that Newsome and the Ravens know what they want to do here. They are working off a proven blueprint, using the draft to build their team and using most of their available cash to keep the players they absolutely cannot get rid of. Guys like Kruger, Ellerbe and the 2013 version of Reed are good complementary pieces, but they aren’t the major building blocks of a championship roster.
But this year, maybe more than has been the case in a long time, the Ravens really need to draft well to fill in the cracks. Their offseason plan has been in place for a while -- you don’t have to like it or understand it -- but the dirty work is just now getting started and the heavy lifting will take place next month at the 2013 NFL draft.
Newsome is one of the best team builders in the NFL. He will have to prove it once again in the coming weeks.