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State of the Ravens address comes at crucial time for franchise

What questions will be asked at State of the Ravens address on Tuesday?

Tuesday's "State of the Ravens" address comes at a crucial time for the organization and its top decision makers.

A little over a week ago, the Ravens finished a disappointing season and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years. Their 8-8 record was emblematic of a team that got maddeningly close to the postseason but their season-long form showed a team that never came close to consistently playing championship-level football.

With five starters heading to unrestricted free agency and another one having already retired, with several significant needs on both sides of the ball and an aging, top-heavy roster, a case could be made that this is one of the Ravens' most important offseasons in years.

When owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh speak to reporters Tuesday afternoon, they'll have plenty of questions to answer about the direction of the franchise. Below are several of the more prominent ones:

Is Bisciotti losing patience in Harbaugh, team?

The Ravens' owner doesn't typically mince words, and he's had no problem in the past putting other team officials on notice. He once publicly challenged coach Brian Billick to change his ways and remarked that he liked offensive coordinator Cam Cameron "under fire."

After last year's injury-plagued 5-11 campaign, Bisciotti backed Harbaugh and the team's top decision makers and said it was important to stay the course. He expressed complete confidence in the ability of the team's brain trust to turn things around. Will he be as understanding and resolute this year after the Ravens faltered late and played a frustrating brand of football for much of the 2016 season?

Harbaugh has two years remaining on his contract, but with the Ravens missing the playoffs for the third time in four years, there's a perception that he'll be coaching for his job next season. We'll see what Bisciotti, who has a very good relationship with the head coach, has to say about that. Some disappointing recent draft picks could put Newsome and other executives in the crosshairs as well.

Are team officials concerned about fan discontent?

The environment at M&T Bank Stadium was not the same during 2016 as it's been in the past. When the Ravens hosted the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins in back-to-back weeks, the visiting fans were well represented and heard from loud and clear. When the Ravens played the Philadelphia Eagles in mid-December in a game the home team had to win to keep its playoff hopes alive, there were quite a few empty seats, a rare sight at the downtown stadium.

This is an NFL problem more than it's a Ravens' problem. Despite teams taking steps to increase the fan experience, more and more fans are finding comfort in staying home and watching games from their living rooms, rather than shelling out big money for tickets, parking and food.

The Ravens have a loyal and passionate fan base and every game in M&T Bank Stadium history has been sold out although single-game ticket sales for the 2016 season were a bit behind previous year's pace. Another non-playoff season will surely make the ticket office's job a little more challenging. Harbaugh's announcement last week that he'll bring back all three of his coordinators wasn't well received by the diehards either.

Can Newsome retain top free agents while fixing other holes?

The good news for the Ravens is the salary cap is again going up. However, that also means that the free-agent contracts will increase as well and that will make it difficult for the Ravens to keep a few of their top free agents while also addressing significant needs on the open market.

Standout nose tackle Brandon Williams, right tackle Rick Wagner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and wide receiver Kamar Aiken are the team's top unrestricted free agents. Williams, a key cog in the team's run defense, is the clear priority but he'll command a lot of interest in a market awash with teams that have money to spend. The Ravens also figure to explore bringing back Wagner and Juszczyk, but they might not be equipped to be top bidders with their current salary cap situation.

Even with a host of expected roster cuts, the Ravens will have to carefully pick and choose their free agency forays and that's usually how Newsome does business anyway. The Ravens have overriding needs, mainly at wide receiver, pass rusher and cornerback, and it would be ambitious to expect them to fill all of them in the draft.

Is there any thought being given to a rebuild?

Eight of the Ravens' top 10 salary cap numbers for the 2017 season are held by players who are 30 years old or older. The Ravens' roster this past season, which wasn't good enough to get to the playoffs, was one of the oldest in the NFL. For an organization that prides itself on having a young and developing roster, that's not a great recipe for future success.

With the Ravens in need of more financial flexibility, several of the older Ravens are in jeopardy of being salary cap casualties. That group of players includes wide receiver Mike Wallace (30), tight ends Dennis Pitta (31) and Benjamin Watson (36), center Jeremy Zuttah (30), strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil (32), cornerbacks Shareece Wright (29) and Kyle Arrington (30), and safeties Lardarius Webb (31) and Kendrick Lewis (28).

Some may be cut outright. Others could be asked to take pay cuts in order to stay on the roster. Either way, the decisions on their older players will reveal much about where the Ravens are headed in the future. Team officials typically don't take a short-term view when evaluating the health of the organization.

How will the Ravens' brain trust address a spiraling offense?

Harbaugh has already announced that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will return. That settles one issue, but there is still an offensive line that needs to be solidified and more playmakers that need to be added around quarterback Joe Flacco. There is also the matter of fixing Flacco, who has regressed the past two seasons after Gary Kubiak's departure following the 2014 campaign.

Whether it's via the draft or free agency, the Ravens have at least two starting offensive line spots to address and a receiving corps that loses its top performer, Steve Smith Sr., to retirement and possibly Aiken to free agency. Harbaugh has also voiced a desire to bring in a speedy running back to complement Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson) and Kenneth Dixon.

There will be some turnover with the offensive personnel, but none of that will matter if the Ravens can't get Flacco playing at a higher level. At his season-ending news conference last week, Harbaugh called helping Flacco "job one" for the organization. The team's top decision makers will have to figure out the best way to do it given their resources.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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