When the current offseason rolled around, the Baltimore Ravens and their fans had as many questions as any team/fan base in the nation, if not more. The breakout player in Paul Kruger, solid inside linebacker Danelle Ellerbe, starting corner Cary Williams, defensive linemen Arthur Jones and Ma’ake Kemoeatu, and the future hall of famer Ed Reed all slated to hit the free agent market where majority of them would enjoy a nice pay day outside of the city of Baltimore. Arguably the most impacting player on defense in the astounding Super Bowl run, Paul Kruger took a big pay day to go to division rival in Cleveland. With the loss of Ray Lewis it appeared that Ellerbe would be the heir apparent to the Raven inside linebacker group, however that was short lived when Ellerbe signed with the Miami Dolphins. Then there was the departure of Ed Reed to the Houston Texans, which hurt the fan base as much as any free agency departure the organization has seen. Cary Williams wound up in Philadelphia, Arthur Jones was retained by the team in an effort to keep a strong defensive front with addition of multiple defensive linemen in free agency. Ma’ake Kemoeatu is still a free agent who may retire or may not, that remains unknown. Then after all of this, the thought of losing yet another defensive starter was then compounded by the release of veteran strong safety Bernard Pollard. Needless to say, Baltimore fans around the country were worried and had the similar question “Who the hell is going to be on the field come next season?”
In the midst of losing so many key players, the Baltimore brain trust brought in a couple of veteran defensive linemen. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears joined the team with favorable contracts to the cap situation. Canty spent some time injured last season and Marcus Spears did not fit in the 4-3 defense that Dallas will now run. Then there was the big signing that eased the mind of Ravens fans everywhere and answered the question, who is going to be playing opposite Terrell Suggs. With Suggs and defensive staff leading the push for Dumervil to be a Raven, it would eventually happen (at a better deal than Paul Kruger could have been kept with). Now with the addition of the troubled Rolando McClain, Baltimore has another option at ILB. Then there was Michael Huff. The longtime raider agreed to a contract with the Baltimore Ravens in an effort to solidify a secondary who just lost both starting safeties.
Canty and Spears will add to a defensive line rotation including Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones and the disappointing Terrence Cody. Now with the (most likely) departure of Ma’ake Kemoeatu, this opens up some speculation on the defensive line. Haloti Ngata could see more time on the interior rather than playing at one of the end positions, a spot where he is more comfortable and in my opinion, has a bigger impact on opposing offenses. Allowing Ngata to play inside allows Canty, Spears, McPhee and Jones to rotate on the outside with occasional snaps on the inside to rest Ngata. Terrence Cody has never amounted into what the team thought he could be, which just opens the door for the thought of Ngata playing interior even more so.
Terrell Suggs who is already one of the leagues best outside linebackers could now be half of possibly the best OLB Tandem in the NFL when he and Elvis Dumervil line up opposite of each other. If these two are at full strength for the season, opposing offenses could be in for a long day. To anyone who watched a lot of Baltimore this past season, was very happy with the play of linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw may not be the pass rusher that Dumervil is, but he is definitely a better run defender than Dumervil. With Upshaw playing primarily outside linebacker, even though he took snaps all over the field including inside linebacker this past season, the question is: Where will he get snaps? Like the defensive line outlook, this is pure speculation at this point. Moving Upshaw to the inside of Baltimore’s defense would provide them with a solid run defender to help replace the loss of Ray Lewis and Dannelle Ellerbe. The staff is confident that inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan can give solid play time on the inside as well. Basically, this leaves those 2 inside linebacker spots up for grabs to these 3, as well as any rookies they bring in from the upcoming draft. The addition of Rolando McClain adds another wrench into the possible defense. A solid athlete with many off the field issues that plagued him in Oakland. He is a 2 down guy who could have a nice fit in Baltimore. I am a firm believer that the versatile Upshaw could be a very solid inside linebacker from what I have seen over the past season.
On the outside, the loss of Cary Williams is a bit over exaggerated by some. He was not the teams best corner during the Super Bowl run. Corey Graham was a pleasant surprise and should see major play time in the up and coming season after being the best cover guy on the defense this past season. With Lardarius Webb coming off surgery, this is still somewhat of a question mark. If he can come back to previous form, the secondary looks promising. However, regardless of whether he comes back in top shape or not, Jimmy Smith will need to work himself into the player Baltimore thought he could be when they selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft, especially in a pass happy NFL. He has shown flashes of the player he could be, however has not been able to do that on a consistent basis. Look for Baltimore to take a cornerback late in this years draft. With the departure of Ed Reed and the addition of Michael Huff, one of the starting safety spots is still up for grabs. Huff may not have the instincts or football IQ that Ed Reed had, but is a younger player who could fit nicely into Baltimore’s scheme, which will involve the safety position changing in tactics with the loss of Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. Huff is a better run defender than Reed and with Reeds age and retirement in question after the season, it was a move that had to be made. The other safety position is one that could go one of two ways. Backup James Ihedigbo could see a major increase in play time at the other safety position, or the team could look at using one of its picks in the draft on a safety, maybe even two. Ihedigbo gave solid snaps to a defense that was not what it once was in different situations throughout the season. I look for Baltimore to select a safety in one of the first three rounds of the draft.
The Baltimore defense will have some new faces and has gone through a drastic change in players this offseason. However, like many of the longtime and new Ravens say: “In Ozzie we trust.”