Ravens will miss veteran leadership of Heap, Mason

Maybe we should not have been so surprised that the first Ravens casualty of the new NFL season would be leadership.

The stunning revelation late Monday that the Ravens were preparing to release Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg turned out to be not-so-stunning when the same kind of dominoes started to fall around the the league Tuesday.

Lots of teams are clearing room under the salary cap to prepare for the compressed free agency period that begins Friday. There has been speculation for months that McGehee would be released and Gregg wasn't a total shock, but the possibility that Heap and Mason will not be back raises a whole new set of questions about the young (and getting younger) Ravens offense.

Mind you, nothing is painted in the end zone yet. Ozzie Newsome apparently will make an attempt to re-sign Heap, Mason and Gregg to more cap-friendly contracts, but there is no guarantee that any of them will return after they officially become free agents Thursday. In short, the Ravens are in danger of suffering a serious brain drain.

Heap figures to be attractive to a number of teams, some of them much closer to his Arizona home. Gregg is probably exchanging texts with Rex Ryan already. Mason seems to be the guy most likely to be back, and Ravens fans can only hope that he's willing to take a big pay cut to remain one of Joe Flacco's go-to receivers.

If all are gone for good, the Ravens have ceded some of the post-lockout advantage they were expected to derive from their stable coaching and roster situation. Theoretically, the teams that don't have to install a new offensive or defensive scheme should get a big head start over the teams that were hoping to start doing that during the offseason workouts that had to be cancelled during the work stoppage.

There still are plenty of high-impact veterans on the defensive side of the ball, but the departure of Heap and Mason would create a mentoring gap on offense at a time when the Ravens are trying to develop a handful of promising young wideouts and tight ends. Anquan Boldin could end up being the only proven receiver on the roster if Newsome does not sign a credible free agent.

Clearly, the Ravens are hoping that Flacco is ready to step up to another level as both a quarterback and a team leader, but it remains to be seen how much extra pressure he might feel if he is separated from a receiver (Mason) who has been his security blanket for the past three seasons.

Running back Ray Rice, who along with Flacco is entering his fourth NFL season, says he's also ready to assume more of a leadership role in the absence of McGahee and possibly Mason.

"Going into my fourth year, when you take away certain guys like that — all your leaders— it's always 'next man up,'" Rice said Tuesday. "Needless to say, I think my time is now when I can become one of the vocal leaders on this team and this offense.

"The young rookies are going to miss that [veteran] leadership, but we do have a guy like Anquan Boldin, who has been at the Super Bowl and played in one, and we still do got that guy like Ray Lewis on the defense and Ed Reed and those kind of guys who are going to mold this team together. But me, Michael Oher, Joe Flacco…there's going to be a lot of, you know, not pressure, but a lot of leadership responsibilities put on us."

Maybe they can handle it. They certainly aren't rookies anymore and the Ravens have a high-quality coaching staff that can sub in some of that leadership from the sidelines, but any time you remove the known quantities from an equation, it's a gamble.

Of course, the signing season hasn't even started yet, so it'll be awhile before there are any hard answers to the questions raised by Newsome's salary cap purge. The mantra inside The Castle has always been "Ozzie knows best," which is pretty comforting unless you just spent a hundred bucks on a new Todd Heap jersey.


Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal com.

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