Ravens’ offseason outlook

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Their season ended the way 11 of the 12 playoff teams’ year inevitably will – disappointingly.

That’s not to say the 2014 Baltimore Ravens didn’t have a successful year, especially given the circumstances in which they began the season.  They finished 10-6 in the regular season and were the last team from the AFC North to remain in contention.

Now it’s time to focus on the offseason and retooling for next season.  Much of the core roster will remain the same heading into 2015, but important free agent and draft decisions await General Manager Ozzie Newsome, Assistant GM Eric DeCosta, and the rest of the Ravens’ front office.

The first order of business for the Ravens’ brass will be to make decisions on their own players who are set to hit the free agent market.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith will be the biggest name on the Baltimore roster facing unrestricted free agency.  The University of Maryland product finished his fourth season with career lows in receptions, targets, yards, and yards per catch.  He did post a career-high 11 touchdowns, however.

The speedy deep threat did not have the type of season that he would have preferred in a contract year, putting up numbers that justify a deal for a number two receiver.  He should remain in the Ravens’ price range and both sides appear interested in a long-term relationship.

Torrey Smith (Wikipedia)
Torrey Smith

“I genuinely love the people here, from the owner to everyone who makes this building go.  I really love being here,” Smith said, according to the Baltimore Sun.  Smith and his wife, Chanel, have planted their roots in the Baltimore area, recently welcoming their first child.  They also engage in extensive charity work for Baltimore children through The Torrey Smith Foundation.

Last season Smith became the franchise’s all-time leader in touchdowns by a wide receiver with 30, trailing only former Raven tight end Todd Heap.  All indications are that he’ll get a new contract, and should be able to add to that total in the coming seasons.

Another pending free agent was voted the Most Valuable Raven for 2014, running back Justin Forsett.  Beginning the season with zero expectations, the seven year veteran posted a career-high 1,266 yards rushing, and led all NFL running backs with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average.  Forsett proved to be a perfect fit for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s one-cut zone-blocking scheme.

The 29-year-old running back is understandably looking for more than just a one-year deal following a breakthrough season, but has indicated he’s interested in returning.  “This is an organization that gave me my first shot, my first real opportunity.  I would love to stay,” Forsett told baltimoreravens.com.

The Ravens will not overpay to keep Forsett, but they certainly should be interested in bringing him back.  Fourth-year running back Bernard Pierce appears to have regressed and lost the confidence of the coaching staff, while Lorenzo Taliaferro will enter only his second season after ending last year on injured reserve.

A surprising bright spot on an impressive Ravens front seven was linebacker Pernell McPhee, who also enters unrestricted free agency this offseason.  McPhee, a fifth-round pick in 2011 out of Mississippi State, posted a career-high 7.5 sacks this past season.

While the Ravens would undoubtedly like to keep McPhee, who proved to be a valuable pass rusher alongside Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, it’s likely that he has priced himself out of Baltimore’s budget.

The Ravens have often shown in past years that they would much rather draft someone new and let another team pay big free agent money to one of their complementary players.  McPhee will likely fall into that category with past Ravens players like Adalius Thomas, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Art Jones.

Another surprising, but needed contributor to the 2014 Ravens was Owen Daniels.  The veteran tight end filled in more than adequately for the injured Dennis Pitta, posting 527 yards and four touchdowns.

With Pitta still a question mark coming off his second hip surgery in as many seasons, look for the Ravens to try and lock up Daniels, with second-year tight end Crockett Gilmore still developing.

After addressing their own players with expiring contracts, Baltimore will also need to look elsewhere to strengthen their roster for 2015 by acquiring players through free agency and the draft.

Even the most casual sports fan could watch the Ravens toward the end of the season and notice that the secondary was the weakness of the team.  Ultimately it led to their downfall at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

The front office should address cornerback and safety in both the draft and free agency.  This unit could look drastically different next season.  The team had to place six players from the secondary on injured reserve, including their best corner, Jimmy Smith.

Smith’s return, coupled with expected additions from outside the organization, should strengthen this component of the Ravens’ defense that currently has major question marks.

Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb showed signs of aging and decline, while former first-round safety Matt Elam looks to be one of Ozzie Newsome’s biggest draft busts since the days of Kyle Boller.

The Ravens also need to address the offensive side of the ball in free agency and the draft, specifically weapons for quarterback Joe Flacco.    With the aforementioned Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels hitting free agency, veteran Steve Smith Sr. is the only playmaker under contract for next season.

Steve Smith Sr. (Wikipedia)
Steve Smith Sr.

But while Smith Sr. had an impressive debut season in purple and black, his production going forward is probably more indicative of his final 10 games of 2014 (492 yards), than his first six (573).

The “best player available” drafting strategy has been a successful one for the team, but if that player happens to be a receiver, it would add a new, exciting dimension to the offense.

The sting of a playoff defeat still lingers and there’s eight months until the start of the 2015 NFL season, but the Ravens have a lot of work ahead if they want to continue to build toward another Super Bowl title run.