Ravens' risky preseason roster moves have paid off

If you ask John Harbaugh, it's a little early to fully evaluate the series of front-office decisions that reconfigured the Ravens roster and put the team in excellent position to earn a high seed for the coming postseason.

True enough, there are five regular-season games left and the Ravens have taught us not to take teams like the Cleveland Browns for granted, but there can be no denying that the they are one of the top teams in the AFC once again — and they are far better positioned for the long term than they were a year ago.

That's no small thing when you look back on the 2010 season. The Ravens held a big lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the playoffs before being undone by a quick flurry of second-half turnovers, so you could make the case that they were a couple of bounces away from the Super Bowl. If they had won that game at Heinz Field, they would have played the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium for the AFC championship, so it didn't require a tremendous leap of the imagination.

The Ravens were so close, in fact, that general manager Ozzie Newsome appeared to be playing a very dangerous game when he released fan favorites Derrick Mason, Todd Heap and Kelly Gregg on the same day, and also let go of running back Willis McGahee, fullback Le'Ron McClain, safety Dawan Landry and tackle Jared Gaither.

Remember, all of this took place after a labor stoppage that theoretically should have put a big premium on roster stability. The lack of OTAs and the compressed signing period figured to give teams with set lineups an advantage in the rush to get ready for the 2011 season. But the Ravens front office moved decisively to clear cap space and make some key additions — most notably safety Bernard Pollard and wide receiver Lee Evans.

Though it has taken Evans half a season to get back on the field, it's hard to argue with any of those moves, and you have to give the front office and the coaching staff a lot of credit for being so proactive under circumstances that seemed to point in a different direction.

"I think we have a lot of confidence," Harbaugh said Friday. "We have a lot of confidence in each other. Those are conversations that went all the way back to March, Februrary, from the top down and throughout. They were made with a great deal of thought and care, and you hope they work out. I think, so far, we have done some good things, but that story still has to be written."

Maybe so, but it's not too early to look at the way things have played out over the first 12 weeks of the season.

Mason, who had been a security blanket for young quarterback Joe Flacco the past three seasons, could not stick with the Jets and now is in Houston. He has caught 19 passes for a total of 170 yards and no touchdowns. That's more than Evans, of course, but rookie Torrey Smith has caught 31 passes for 613 yards and five touchdowns and nearly equaled Mason's season yardage total with a 165-yard performance in the Ravens' recent victory over the Bengals.

Heap started the first four games for his hometown Arizona Cardinals and caught 13 passes for 150 yards, but he has not been able to stay on the field. He has made just two game appearances since then and has no receptions. By contrast, the Ravens have continued the development of young tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who have combined for 70 receptions, 655 yards and four touchdowns.

Gregg has played in all 11 games for the Kansas City Chiefs this season and appears to be on the way to better numbers than he put up last season, but second-year nose tackle Terence Cody has held his own at the position for the Ravens. McClain also jumped to the Chiefs, but did not find the enhanced role in the offense he campaigned for in Baltimore, where new fullback Vonta Leach has happily filled the role of pure blocking fullback.

Perhaps the most successful departees are Willis McGahee and Dawan Landry, but the Ravens don't appear to miss either one of them. McGahee has emerged as a feature back in Denver, where he has rushed for 100 yards or more five times this season and is on pace for his first 1,000-yard season since 2007. That's great for him, but he wasn't going to fill that role here and the Ravens needed the cap room.

Landry also is having a very solid season in Jacksonville, but the Ravens like the menace that Pollard brings to their hard-hitting defense. They don't call him "Bonecrusher" for nothing.

They have a saying around the Ravens facility — "In Ozzie We Trust" — and there's good reason for that. Newsome and his front office staff have built a team in 2011 that has a chance to go all the way, while resetting the roster for what appears to be a very bright future.

Harbaugh is correct that it's much too early to put a bow on this season, but it isn't too soon to give some credit where it's due. The Ravens play the front-office game as well as anyone in the NFL, but there were a lot of people who thought that Newsome was way out over his skis in late July.

Apparently, playing it safe was never an option.

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

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