Harbaugh: Abundance of roster moves 'nature of the league'

PHOENIX - The first question John Harbaugh was asked Tuesday actually had nothing to do with the Baltimore Ravens' offseason moves, nothing to do with the still undetermined future of Ed Reed, nothing to do with the scheduling conflict with Major League Baseball that could prevent Baltimore from hosting the NFL's Thursday night season opener and really just little to do with the Ravens whatsoever.

The first question, of all things, had to do with Harbaugh's perception of the NFC North.

Actually, strangely, two more NFC North-related queries followed. But then came the expected gamut of questions.

How disappointing is it lose so many players that were so key in Baltimore's run to a Super Bowl title? What's the level of optimism the team will find a way to retain Reed? And how much added pressure will there be on Joe Flacco now that he's the highest paid player in NFL history?

There were plenty more.

But, more so than anything else, the hour-long session with Harbaugh inside the MacArthur Ballroom at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix focused on the changes this offseason has brought about for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Eight players who started at least one game for Baltimore last season are no longer with the team and three more - Reed, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu - are likely to leave as free agents.

To Harbaugh, though, "it's just the nature of the league."

"It's the unfortunate way the salary cap is set up with a hard cap," Harbaugh said. "You just cannot hold your team together for long periods of time, all the guys you want to. It's been tough. ...

"I don't know if you can ever be surprised. Anything is possible. I was hopeful that we could work a few things out and make the math work. But guys have to do what they have to do and what's in the best interest, and the club has to do the same thing. ... You take on the next challenge."

And the next challenge will be filling the voids created by the abundance of roster-related decisions and moves since the end of the season.

Gone is Ray Lewis, the face of Baltimore's franchise since its inception in 1996. Gone is Anquan Boldin, the Ravens' leading receiver from last season. Gone is Paul Kruger, the team's leader in sacks. Gone are Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe, the team's top two tacklers from last season. And gone is cornerback Cary Williams, who established himself as a valuable piece in Baltimore's secondary, especially after Lardarius Webb was lost early in the year to a season-ending knee injury.

But Harbaugh voiced confidence, both in the Ravens' ability to reload through the NFL draft and also in young players continuing to improve and stepping into more substantial roles next season, particularly at wide receiver and safety.

Tandon Doss, David Reed, Deonte Thompson and Tommy Streeter were four young receivers that Harbaugh said he envisions competing for Boldin's old position, although he also said the team will probably add another receiver through the draft as well.

David Reed signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with the Ravens last week and Harbaugh said Tuesday that he is a player who could "really see coming into his own this year."

Doss was a fourth-round pick in 2011, but he has just seven catches for 123 yards and one touchdown in his first two NFL seasons.

"It will be really competitive. Wide receiver will be fun to watch," Harbaugh said. "It's all competitive, we like competition. But that will be really fun to watch."

At safety, Harbaugh mentioned Anthony Levine and 2012 fourth-round pick Christian Thompson as two players he could see emerging this season, although safety was another position Harbaugh said the Ravens are "open to adding some guys."

Baltimore had formal meetings with several of the top safety prospects in this year's draft at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, including Florida's Matt Elam and South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger.

Harbaugh did say Baltimore "can be active in free agency to an extent," but he also noted the Ravens aren't going to be "high rollers" by any means, especially being around just $8 million under the salary cap.

"We're moving forward to next year just like we have for [the] last five years," Harbaugh said. "Every year is a new year. 2013 is going to be a new challenge and you take a new team. No team ever stays the same. We understand it.

"It's mostly difficult because we had the success last year and we won a championship last year. You'd like to hold on to that, but you can't hold on to it. It's not the nature of it ... [but] we know how to deal with it and [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] does a great job with it."