Ravens got better this offseason

Training camp is still a couple of months away, but there is reason to be very optimistic about the 2010 NFL season. Since the 2009 season ended in January, the Ravens have made enough upgrades to become serious contenders.

We're not just talking about the results of the draft over the weekend, but the entire offseason. The Ravens have improved in the areas where they had major weaknesses, from the addition of several wide receivers to getting younger on defense to finding another pass rusher.

It's still early, and the additions are only on paper, which prompts some skepticism. The Ravens still have needs at cornerback and fullback, and they haven't received a definitive answer from Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed about retirement. But overall, if you asked yourself whether the Ravens are better now than they were last season, the answer would have to be a resounding yes.

As of today, they are clearly the favorites to win the AFC North. Pittsburgh has imploded, Cleveland is rebuilding and defending champion Cincinnati has had problems putting together two good halves of a season much less two straight good years. The key for the Ravens will be the development of quarterback Joe Flacco and how well the Ravens incorporate new receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth into the passing game.

The Ravens have made some good moves since last season, but none was better than signing Boldin. He is big, tough, makes yards after the catch and can dominate the middle of the field, an area in which the Ravens needed drastic improvement. If Stallworth can become a vertical threat, all the bases will be covered in the passing game.

Because of Boldin, the Ravens really had a good draft. He has to be worked into the equation because the Ravens surrendered picks to Arizona in this year's draft to complete the deal. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was criticized Friday night for trading down in the first round and recouping some of those picks, but it was a bold and successful move.

It would have been nice if the Ravens had drafted wide receiver Dez Bryant, cornerback Kyle Wilson or defensive tackle Dan Williams, but they still managed to get more picks, fill needs and come away with a proven receiver like Boldin. That's a key. Unlike every player who was drafted over the weekend, Boldin is a proven commodity.

So, if Boldin was the equivalent of a first-round pick, then the Ravens made out well in the second with the additions of Texas outside linebacker Sergio Kindle and Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody. Kindle has some drawbacks, and apparently has some growing up to do, but he is tenacious on the football field and could be the pass rusher the Ravens desperately missed last season. His athleticism and explosion on the snap of the ball were clearly evident on film.

As for Cody, the Ravens still need a change of philosophy in selecting defensive tackles. It's time for more lean and athletic ones, tackles who can stop the run and pressure the quarterback. But with the 57th pick in the second round, there are limitations and the Ravens made a good choice in Cody. He can back up starters Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, and both Cody and Kindle have a year to sit and learn instead of being forced to play right away.

The knock on Cody has always been his weight (360pounds) and that he takes plays off. Oh, please stop. There isn't a defensive tackle in the league who doesn't take a play or two off. It's not easy chasing running backs and quarterbacks to the far side of the field.

But on defense, the Ravens got younger, which they needed to do. They drafted two tight ends, Oregon's Ed Dickson in the third round and Brigham Young's Dennis Pitta in the fourth, to back up starter Todd Heap, who has missed extensive time two of the past three seasons because of injuries. Dickson seems to be a hybrid between tight end and wide receiver. One thing we do know is that he caught 42 passes last season for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns, and that he has outstanding speed.

Overall, the Ravens have accomplished a lot since last season. As the draft ended Saturday, you still had to wonder why the Ravens didn't select a cornerback, especially with Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb trying to rebound from major knee surgery during the offseason.

They could also use a backup fullback behind Le'Ron McClain.

But the 2010 season is still three months away. The Ravens usually do a fine job of signing some good undrafted rookie free agents, and there will be another window to sign free agents. In two years under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone to the playoffs, but this is definitely their strongest team.

The moves are only on paper, but that's the only barometer we can use until the Ravens step onto the field.

Earlier versions of this column contained inaccurate information. Ravens draftee Ed Dickson had six touchdowns in 2009 at Oregon. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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