Free agency is but 24 hours in the books, and already the Baltimore Ravens look nothing like the team that won the Super Bowl just over one month ago.
At this early moment in the new NFL league year, it's wise not to panic about what the Ravens have just undertaken, and the prowess of team general manager Ozzie Newsome certainly makes it seem that the Ravens aren't in trouble, but it's hard to look at these moves and not be more than a little concerned.
It's not just that linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk retired. Both of those moves were expected and known, and when they happened, it seemed like the Ravens had ready-made replacements for them in Dannell Ellerbe and Gino Gradkowski, respectively. It's been all of the cuts, trades and swings-and-misses that have characterized the days leading up to free agency's start on Tuesday that calls into question just what kind of team the Ravens will be in the upcoming season.
In the span of just 48 hours, the Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round pick, saving them $6 million in 2013; lost free-agent linebackers Paul Kruger and Ellerbe, the former to the Browns and the latter to the Miami Dolphins; and cut safety Bernard Pollard for a $1 million cap savings (per Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun).
Though they did spend money to retain some of their other important free agents, like tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson as well as defensive end Arthur Jones, and though they also did make a significant signing in free-agent defensive tackle Chris Canty, it's hard to say that the Ravens haven't lost more than they gained in just a short period of time.
The Kruger loss was fine—it was expected—but the inability to retain Ellerbe stings, even if the Dolphins overpaid for him at $35 million over five years. It also significantly weakens their linebacker depth, making the position a huge priority in the draft, potentially at the expense of others.
Like safety, for example—the Ravens cut Pollard, and Ed Reed remains an unrestricted free agent. While one could assume that the Boldin trade and Pollard release could be a way to free up some cash for Reed in 2013, he's visiting other teams—the Houston Texans on Thursday and potentially the 49ers and Colts after that (per Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com).
On defense alone, Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun points out that the lost players accounted for 289 tackles, 16.5 sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles in 2012 alone. And if Reed goes too, that's another 49 tackles, four interceptions, a touchdown and a fumble recovery the Ravens will need to make up for in some other way. Cornerback Cary Williams could also play elsewhere, as he's an unrestricted free agent this year, and the same goes for nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu.
Vensel adds that the seven starters the Ravens have lost thus far is unprecedented for a reigning Super Bowl champion. No team has lost more than five—total—while the Ravens have lost four on defense alone as of now.
Some may point to quarterback Joe Flacco's six-year, $120 million deal as why the Ravens had to make the cuts and endure the losses they've seen thus far, and in one sense, it's true. Though Flacco has just a $6.8 million salary cap hit for 2013, allowing them more flexibility with their cash, that number will rise with each year of the deal, so making moves now to prevent more later could be partly why the Ravens have made these decisions now. The key there, however, is "partly."
Things are about to get quite interesting in Baltimore, and how they respond to all these changes—and the ones likely yet to come—will play a huge role in their chances to repeat as AFC North champions and make it back to the postseason this year. History indicates that they should be able to manage it, but they've never dealt with attrition this severe—all the previous offseason losses are tiny in comparison.
The draft becomes more important than ever for the Ravens this year. They'll need to address many, many needs on both offense and defense, while also hoping the youth and depth that remains will be able to take on expanded roles and increased responsibility. Clearly, the Ravens are convinced that these changes will only make them stronger and not weaken them in an increasingly more difficult division to win in.
All we can do now is trust Newsome's vision for his team and wait to see how the Ravens plug these significant holes in the coming months.