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Five storylines as Ravens enter one of most important offseasons in franchise history

At some point over the next couple of weeks, owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh will field questions from reporters at the “State of the Ravens” address.

That annual news conference typically precedes a trip to Bisciotti’s home in Jupiter, Fla., where the team’s top decision-makers, who also include assistant general manager Eric DeCosta and senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, will plot out one of the most important offseasons in franchise history.

The disappointment from the Ravens’ season-ending 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday as well as from missing the playoffs for a third consecutive year and the fourth time in five seasons is still fresh. However, a host of issues await the team’s brain trust, which is facing more scrutiny than perhaps ever before.

Fan discontent might be at an all-time high. The Ravens are facing a tight salary-cap situation and there is an obvious need for offensive playmakers. A defense that was dominant at times in 2017 but came apart at the most critical moments needs a new coordinator.

The Baltimore Sun looks at five of the Ravens’ biggest offseason storylines.

Can the Ravens pacify a suddenly frustrated fan base?

The Ravens have spoken proudly that their 99 percent renewal rate on season tickets has remained steady. However, selling tickets and getting fans into M&T Bank Stadium is more challenging than it’s ever been. The reasons for the rows of empty seats in Baltimore and in most NFL cities are well-documented, and a few of them are beyond the Ravens’ control.

The fact remains that the Ravens badly need to re-energize their fan base. The three-year playoff drought, periods of inept offensive football and defensive collapses have left fans not showing up to games, questioning those in charge and calling for widespread change. That there wasn’t significant turnover on the coaching staff only added to fan discontent.

Bisciotti and Newsome haven’t been successful over their careers by responding to the whims and complaints from their fans. Yet, they surely understand what’s at stake this offseason. They need to significantly upgrade the roster and get fans excited again about the franchise.

How will the Ravens add playmakers?

At this time last year, Ravens officials spoke about getting quarterback Joe Flacco more help. Yet, their two primary offensive skill position additions in free agency were 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead and 29-year-old wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. They didn’t take an offensive skill position player in the draft for the first time in team history.

Woodhead and Maclin both struggled to stay healthy and 2015 first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman contributed little, leaving the Ravens with little semblance of a downfield passing game. One year later, the Ravens’ lack of high-end offensive talent is as glaring as ever and the front office needs to rectify its mistake from last offseason to give the offense a chance to succeed.

It won’t be easy. It’s an extremely weak free-agent wide receiver class beyond Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson. There’s not an obvious solution in free agency for the team’s glaring need for a dynamic and field-stretching tight end either. The Ravens should be able to plug a hole at wide receiver in free agency, but most of the draft needs to be devoted to finding skill-position talent.

How will the Ravens create some salary-cap flexibility?

It’s expected to be business as usual this offseason for the Ravens, which means they’ll be up against the salary cap and have to be creative to make meaningful free-agent additions or even to sign their top unrestricted free agents, such as Mike Wallace and center Ryan Jensen. Overthecap.com estimated that the team will have just $12 million in cap space and ranked the Ravens as having the fourth-least cap flexibility in the league.

When injuries hit last season, the Ravens were forced to restructure several veterans’ deals, so they’re not going to get far doing that again. Releasing Maclin and Woodhead would create about $7 million in total salary cap room, and there are also modest savings that would come from releasing safety Lardarius Webb ($1.75 million) and linebacker Albert McClellan ($1.2 million)

Beyond them, there are no obvious candidates. Cutting cornerback Brandon Carr would save $4 million, but it would also open a hole at cornerback with Jimmy Smith (Achilles) and Jaylen Hill (knee) possibly not being ready for the start of next year. Jettisoning solid right tackle Austin Howard would save $3 million, but the Ravens don’t have a replacement for him on their roster.

What will Harbaugh do at defensive coordinator?

Harbaugh said Thursday that he wants his entire coaching staff back, although that’s always an unlikely scenario. The Ravens did well to retain tight ends coach and run-game guru Greg Roman and they’ve already added quarterbacks coach James Urban, who comes over from Cincinnati. However, there remains one significant vacancy on Harbaugh’s staff after longtime defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired the day after the season ended.

Harbaugh is expected to make a decision at defensive coordinator soon. It’s well-documented that he targeted Chuck Pagano, the team’s defensive coordinator in 2011 and the former Indianapolis Colts head coach, for the opening. It’s unclear, though, whether Pagano is interested in jumping right back into a job after he was recently fired by the Colts following a challenging six-year run.

The team’s linebackers coach, Don “Wink” Martindale, is another prime candidate who has gotten a strong endorsement from players. It’s believed that Harbaugh has also given consideration to former Ravens assistants Steve Spagnuolo and Ted Monachino.

Can the Ravens extend C.J. Mosley’s contract?

Mosley is set to play in 2018 under the fifth-year $8.7 million contract option that the Ravens picked up last offseason. The goal for both the Ravens and for Mosley is to reach agreement on a long-term extension and this offseason is the most logical time to do it.

Mosley has made the Pro Bowl in three of four seasons since the Ravens selected him in the first round in 2014. He’s led the team in tackles three times and he also has eight career interceptions, eight sacks, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. By every measure, he’s one of their most indispensable players and the Ravens don’t traditionally let young defensive players in their prime walk out the door.

The 25-year-old has made it clear that he’d love to stay with the Ravens for his entire career, but given his age, durability and production, he won’t come cheap. He’d have every right to ask to be paid as one of the top inside linebackers in the league and that means a contract in the $10 million to $12 million range per year. That number will probably only go up as Mosley gets closer to free agency next year. The Ravens figure to start negotiations soon.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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