On paper, the Ravens don't appear much better than a year ago. There could be arguments that they are worse because of the departure of several key veterans.
But, upon further review, the Ravens might end up being the best team in the AFC.
They will have dominating interior lines, a key to winning in the NFL. But if that is not enough then ask yourself this: Which playoff teams from a year ago made dramatic enough changes in personnel to catapult over the others?
There might be one in Indianapolis, but the Colts added a lot of 30-something players. New England lost cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and quarterback Tom Brady could be suspended for four games because of his possible involvement in Deflategate.
Denver has a new coach and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning looked old last season, even taking into account his reported injuries. Pittsburgh has a great offense, but a rebuilding defense. And the San Diego Chargers look like they are pretenders again.
Cincinnati? The Bengals have Andy Dalton as a starting quarterback. End of conversation.
There are questions about all the contenders, so even if the Ravens didn't improve much they will be in the playoff hunt again. But let's evaluate further, especially on the interior lines.
The Ravens put up career numbers in several offensive categories a year ago and they return all five starters on the offensive line for the first time in team history. Guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda were already one of the best tandems in the league and they will be motivated even more because both are unrestricted free agents at the end of this season.
Translation: Barring injury, both will play extremely well.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe wants to rebound from a poor, injury plagued 2014 season and third-year right tackle Rick Wagner can only get better from his surprising showing of a year ago. The Ravens also have strong depth with tackle James Hurst and guard/center John Urschel.
On the defensive side, it's impossible to replace a player like tackle Haloti Ngata, whom the Ravens traded to Detroit, but that doesn't mean they can't get better. Third-year tackle Brandon Williams has Pro Bowl potential and second-year tackle Timmy Jernigan could have a breakout season.
Throughout the various offseason minicamps, this group was impressive and the Ravens will have a strong rotation on the line with Lawrence Guy, DeAngelo Tyson, Brent Urban, Carl Davis, and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Physically, the Ravens will be able to match up with any team in the NFL. But for some, that's not enough. They point out that in addition to losing Ngata, the Ravens lost their top two speedsters in receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, and also Kubiak, who as coordinator put some magic back into the offense before becoming the head coach in Denver.
There are concerns about the ages of linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty and wide receiver Steve Smith. The health of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are also issues, as is how much of an impact receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams can have as rookies.
All the concerns are valid, but not insurmountable.
Dumervil and Suggs dominated most of the teams in the mediocre NFL last season and if Jimmy Smith had played against New England in the playoffs the Ravens could have won. If Smith plays close to the level of where he left off before being injured last season, the Ravens will have upgraded the secondary, especially with the additions of safety Kendrick Lewis and cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Perriman doesn't have to be exceptional this season, he just has to make a couple of plays. Speed earns automatic respect. If he can draw attention in the deep third, that will open up the middle of the field for Williams, Steve Smith and fellow receivers Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown.
Kubiak was a major influence a year ago because he brought the West Coast offense to Baltimore for the first time. Without question he will be missed, but replacement Marc Trestman has impressive credentials and won't change the style, philosophy or terminology much on offense.
Plus, there are some other intangibles working in the Ravens' favor. Quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Justin Forsett had record-setting seasons in this offense a year ago. There is also the John Harbaugh factor. He has missed the playoffs only once in his seven years as Ravens coach.
Overall, the Ravens did a nice job of rebuilding this team for 2015. Like all the other contenders from a year ago, there are still some issues to be addressed, but one question has already been answered.