With the pieces in place to make a strong run at the Super Bowl next season, the Ravens' most puzzling issue remains at quarterback.
A day after their season ended with a 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans in an AFC wild-card game, Ravens coach Brian Billick declined to name a starting quarterback for next season, saying the decision-making process could take weeks or months.
To make matters more confusing, Billick's comments came only a half-hour after rookie Kyle Boller declared himself the starter to local reporters.
"I'm going to be the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens," Boller said. "I've got nine games under my belt, and I want to go into next season on a full sprint. I know I can play in this league. We accomplished a lot this year, but we have a lot more to accomplish next year."
The Ravens will return at least 16 of their 22 starters next season - including a minimum of six Pro Bowl performers back - and could make a serious push for their second Super Bowl title. The biggest question mark is whether Boller or Anthony Wright will start at quarterback.
Boller, 22, the second of two first-round picks last season, won a quarterback competition in training camp and went 5-4 as a starter before a leg injury sidelined him. He completed 51.8 percent of his throws for 1,260 yards, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Wright, 27, who began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, took over for Boller and went 5-2 as the Ravens captured their first division title. He connected on 52.8 percent of his passes for 1,199 yards, with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
While Boller is locked up through 2007, Wright is an unrestricted free agent in March. The investment placed in Boller - which includes a five-year, $8 million contract along with trading away first- and second-round picks to draft him - would seem to make him the leading candidate to start, but Billick said no decision has been reached.
"We have countless hours of evaluation to do, and [the quarterback position] is part of it," said Billick, whose Ravens finished last in the NFL in passing. "Kyle Boller made tremendous strides for us, and we are very pleased with his progress. [But] we very much want to have Anthony Wright back and Anthony knows that. Under what circumstances and what parameters, that needs to be evaluated."
When asked about Boller's comments about being the starter, Billick said, "That is the kind of mind-set that you want. I am sure his mentality is, 'I left as the starter so I am going to come back as the starter.' But as I said, we will make those determinations as we look at the team as a whole."
As Billick left open the possibility that Boller or Wright could be named the starter, he also did not rule out another quarterback battle in training camp. If Wright would sign elsewhere, the Ravens probably would go with Boller as the starter and find another backup.
The chances of signing a high-profile quarterback like Mark Brunell or Kurt Warner - both of whom are expected to be cut - seem remote at this point. If these veterans are available, it would drastically decrease Wright's value in the free-agent market.
Asked whether he would return to the Ravens as a backup after starting in the playoffs, Wright said, "It'd be tough. But I'd rather be with a team that's in the playoffs and having a chance to win the whole thing instead of being with a team that doesn't have a chance at all.
"It all depends on the market and what's going on. Negotiations is going to handle itself. As for myself, I know this is a good team to be with and I'm happy with being here. I think this team has a bright future, and I definitely want to be part of that future."
That future will include nearly three-quarters of the Ravens' starting lineup coming back. The six starters who will become unrestricted free agents are: cornerback Chris McAlister, receiver Marcus Robinson, center Mike Flynn, offensive tackle Orlando Brown, linebacker Adalius Thomas and defensive end Marques Douglas.
A league-best $24 million under next season's $78.1 million salary cap, the Ravens will concentrate on re-signing these players and probably won't make a big splash in free agency. Because the Ravens believe they have a three-year window to make a championship run, throwing big-money contracts to free agents like receiver Terrell Owens or defensive tackle Warren Sapp probably doesn't fit into their plans.
"Our first priority in free agency will be to re-sign and maintain the integrity of this team," said Billick, who has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in three of his five seasons, "and we have reason to be optimistic that we can, more so than any point since I've been here."
The Ravens have already begun the process by extending the contract of nose tackle Kelly Gregg last week and continuing negotiations on a new deal with Flynn.
Next on the list could be McAlister, who may be one of the most coveted players on the free-agent market.
"I'll be back. I've been a Raven since they drafted me, and I'm going to retire a Raven," McAlister said. "We're young now, but this defense can ultimately go down as one of the greatest ever assembled."
As the players packed their belongings into trash bags and went their separate ways, many talked about what lies in store for them when they reunite.
"It's tough, knowing we're out and can't play anymore," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "But it's a good feeling looking around the room and knowing this team is going to be together for a while. I look at it as a long story. We've taken the first step, the first chapter of a very long book. We're only going to get better."