Ravens' focus is on development, not free agent fixes

The NFL free agency period starts Tuesday afternoon, but there isn't much buzz surrounding the Ravens. Actually, it's pretty ho-hum, and likely to remain that way for a while.

First, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is never one to make a deal immediately. He prefers to let the market settle, and then find the right player for the right price.

And then there is this little problem of the Ravens being only $14.44 million under the league salary cap of $120.6 million with no team unrestricted free agents signed, and the team also wanting to sign quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice to long-term contracts.

So, as it appears now, the Ravens need to have a great offseason program to get some of their young players to step up. If they do, that window of success that is often talked about is still open. And if not ...

Well, it could be a difficult season.

"As an organization we have had success allowing our young players the opportunity to earn playing time, and we will continue to do it," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.

We're not talking about anything dramatic here, but guys who have waited their time. It appears that the Ravens won't re-sign veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, so fourth-year player Paul Kruger needs to play.

Are there reservations?

Sure, but there were just as many about Johnson 10 years ago. Kruger has developed as a pass rusher and part time player, but the Ravens will now need him to set the edge on running plays.

The Ravens can probably make a decision on defensive end/tackle Cory Redding leading up to training camp because there won't be a high demand for him, but the Ravens have ample replacements in Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee.

Jones, about to enter his third year, did a good job last offseason of re-defining his body and adding muscle. He played in 14 games as a backup and posted 18 tackles. McPhee, a rookie last season, played in all 16 games and was second on the team in sacks with six. If he works hard in the team's weight training program during the off season, the added bulk can turn him into a good, every down player.

Two other young defensive players that need to have strong seasons in 2012 are linebackers Sergio Kindle and Dannell Ellerbe. Kindle has gotten a reprieve since fracturing his skull nearly two years ago when he was one of the better passrushers in college coming out of Texas. Ellerbe has excellent potential, but isn't consistent.

It time for both to step up or move on.

The opportunities aren't as great on the offensive side — even though the defense was ranked No. 3 and the offense No. 15 — because several young players stepped up last season.

The Ravens have to improve on the offensive line. If guard Ben Grubbs, the team's top offensive lineman, hits the open market it's highly unlikely that he will return. So, the Ravens might have to take Wisconsin center Peter Konz in the April draft, move him to guard for a year pending if they resign veteran center Matt Birk. Like Redding, there won't be a lot of clamoring for Birk in free agency.

The Ravens had high hopes for rookie guard/tackle Jah Reid last year, but after watching him play he looks more like a project than a player who can step in next season. He has good bend in his knees, but appeared stiff and slow as if he hadn't adjusted to the speed of the NFL.

The Ravens' passing game should improve just because young players like tight ends Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta and receiver Torrey Smith have another year of experience. Dickson, though, has to improve on holding onto the ball and Smith in running more precise routes.

Regardless of contract situations, Rice and Flacco are aware of how close they were to a Super Bowl last season, and they also know they are entering their peak years. They can only get better.

They have to. By the time the Ravens get them re-signed, sign drafted rookies and their own restricted free agents, there won't be much money to get another big-name player.

That's why the Ravens' emphasis has to be working with their young players during the offseason.


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