"If I had my way, I would like to get something done beforehand," said Torrey Smith when asked about testing the free-agent market. "But I understand it's a business, and nothing is guaranteed." (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
The Ravens' offseason has started with the organization facing far fewer questions than it has in the recent past.
Thanks to Gary Kubiak's decision Sunday to stay put rather than interview for head coaching vacancies, there is no need for an extensive offensive coordinator search, or an overhaul of the Joe Flacco-led attack. Kubiak's announcement came before the Denver Broncos job opened up Monday, but it remains to be seen whether former teammate and Broncos general manager John Elway asks to speak with Kubiak.
If the front office's goal is to build the team from the inside out, the Ravens have more depth on the offensive and defensive lines than they've had in some time.
While the Ravens could have as many as 18 unrestricted or restricted free agents, there isn't expected to be a mass exodus of accomplished veterans, as in past offseasons.
It's easy to see why coach John Harbaugh, in his final speech to the Ravens a day after their season ended with a 35-31 loss to the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional-round playoff game, emphasized the team's bright future to the players and the importance of building off an 11-win season.
Harbaugh will have his final news conference Tuesday afternoon, and he'll undoubtedly be asked some variation of these five questions:
Will there be any other changes on Harbaugh's staff?
There was a big sigh of relief within the organization when Kubiak told team officials that he would return for a second season as offensive coordinator. (Again, that was before the Broncos parted ways with coach John Fox.)
In one season with Kubiak calling the plays, the Ravens established franchise records in points (409) and yards (5,838), Flacco set career bests in passing yards and touchdown passes, and the running game was rejuvenated by the new offensive system.
A year of familiarity between Kubiak and the players should help the offense hit new heights next year. It also provides much-needed continuity for Flacco, who has encountered steady turnover with the offensive staff throughout his career.
Harbaugh's staff incorporated seven new assistant coaches last offseason. That kind of turnover won't happen this year, though secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo could leave. He's expected to interview for the New York Giants' defensive coordinator job.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees turns 66 this year, but there's been no indication that he's interested in retiring, and he has the respect of Harbaugh and the players.
How do the Ravens fix the secondary?
The Ravens mixed and matched in the defensive backfield all season, but the play of the group doomed them in the end, when the team needed a stop against Tom Brady and Co. While retooling the offensive line was the front office's biggest challenge last year, fixing the secondary is at the forefront this offseason.
The return of Jimmy Smith, the team's top cornerback, who missed the team's final 10 games with a foot injury, would be a significant first step. The next order of business will be figuring out what to do with fellow cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has been slowed by injuries and seems unlikely to be back under his current contract, which carries a $12 million salary cap hit for 2015.
Cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Rashaan Melvin will return, but the Ravens will look for upgrades through the draft and possibly in a free-agent class that could include Darrelle Revis, Tramon Williams, Brandon Flowers and Kareem Jackson.
At safety, starters Will Hill (restricted) and Darian Stewart (unrestricted) are pending free agents, as is top reserve Jeromy Miles (unrestricted). It also will be hard to count on recent draft picks Matt Elam, who regressed badly in 2014, and Terrence Brooks, who will spend the offseason rehabilitating a significant knee injury.
What do the Ravens do with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and other potential cap casualties?
Every offseason, the Ravens are forced to make difficult decisions on some of their most accomplished players. This year, their biggest call is on Ngata, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle who has been a fixture on their defense since 2006.
At nearly 31, Ngata had a strong season and remains one of the best in the league at his position. But he will take up $16 million of cap space in 2015 if his contract is not renegotiated, which would be extremely prohibitive for a team that has several positions to address. Ngata also did himself — and his future with the Ravens — no favors with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
The Ravens could work out an extension with Ngata — similar to the one his close friend Terrell Suggs agreed to last offseason — that significantly lowers his cap number next season and puts him in position to finish his career with the team. But negotiations on such a deal went nowhere last offseason.
Other players entering the final year of their deals who could be extended to free up cap space include Jimmy Smith, right guard Marshal Yanda and punter Sam Koch. The contracts of Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, returner Jacoby Jones and defensive end Chris Canty likely will be scrutinized by the team, though Canty is seriously contemplating retirement.
Which of their free agents will the Ravens prioritize signing?
The Ravens could have as many as 14 unrestricted free agents, but the big four to watch are running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.
The most likely of that group to leave is McPhee, who could become the latest Ravens defensive player to parlay a breakout season in his walk year into a huge contract elsewhere. The Ravens value McPhee but aren't equipped to win a bidding war for him.
As for Forsett, Smith and Daniels, the Ravens would like all three offensive starters back, but as usual, it will come down to whether they can get them at the right price. If Forsett wants to be paid like an upper-echelon back and Smith as a No. 1 wide receiver, they are probably going to have to go elsewhere.
Daniels, 32, outplayed his one-year, $1 million contract and could be looking for a longer commitment, depending on how much longer he plans on playing. With Pitta's future uncertain, Daniels could become a higher priority.
Can the Ravens stay out of trouble this offseason?
The Ravens survived a slew of injuries to win 10 regular-season games, get back to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons and win their wild-card playoff game by thoroughly outplaying the Pittsburgh Steelers on their archrival's home field. But the season was marred by a series of off-field problems that reflected poorly on the organization.
Five players were arrested last offseason, and former running back Ray Rice's domestic-violence case became one of the biggest stories in the league. Four months after his release, the scandal continues to hover over the Ravens. Rice's wrongful-termination grievance hearing against the team is scheduled to start Thursday.
Team owner Steve Bisciotti and Harbaugh have expressed disappointment in the incidents, and you can bet that players have been warned about staying out of trouble this offseason.