The questions will be sent toward Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh at high speed today.
'Tis the nature of the State of the Ravens press conference, arguably the most hyped Ravens media event of the year. This day traditionally draws a horde of media members out to The Castle, some of whom seemingly haven't been at Ravens headquarters since the last State of the Ravens presser.
We'll hear a lot of questions posed this afternoon, and I'll have updates throughout the day on all the news to come out of Owings Mills. In my mind, however, there are only five major questions going into this offseason. If the Ravens can figure out how they plan to attack these five issues, they'll be in good shape both in 2012 and in the years to come.
1. What to do regarding Joe Flacco's contract situation?
As we're all well aware by now, Flacco has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but he'd like to sit down with the Ravens brass and work out a long-term extension. Bisciotti and Newsome have been unwilling to engage in such talks, but sometime soon, they'll need to make a decision on how Flacco fits into their future. Is he the guy they want under center for the better part of the next decade? Are they willing to fork over the money (likely somewhere in the $65-95 million range) necessary to keep the 27-year-old QB in Charm City ? And if a deal is worked out, will it happen this offseason - as Flacco would like - or will the team wait to see how the sometimes inconsistent quarterback fares in 2012?
2. What to do regarding Ray Rice's contract situation?
Rice's contract issues are much more simplistic than Flacco's, largely because the running back has already played out the length of his four-year rookie contract. The Ravens have just two options with Rice this offseason - pay the two-time Pro Bowler now and lock him up for the foreseeable future, or put the franchise tag on him. The latter option is more likely, especially considering that the $7.7 million that the team would have to pay Rice under the one-year tag (calculated by averaging the top-five salaries at the player's position the previous year) is fairly reasonable.
The Ravens know how important Rice is to their team, and value the type of player and person he's become during his four years in Baltimore. The question here isn't if Rice will get his long-term contract, but when. The timing, especially with Flacco's situation being what it is, will determine how much salary cap space the Ravens will have the next two seasons.
3. Is this the year the defensive youth movement begins?
The Ravens have gotten younger at cornerback and along the interior of the defensive line the last couple seasons, but this will be an interesting offseason in terms of seeing how they address veteran free agents at the linebacker and defensive end spots. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (30) has been a warrior during his nine seasons in Baltimore, playing through pain and consistently ending up around the ball, and defensive end Cory Redding (31) has stepped in and elevated his game during his two seasons with the Ravens.
But with those guys reaching unrestricted free agency, the Ravens brass will need to determine if they want to bring the aging veterans back or if they will turn over the reins to younger players. Guys like Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee played well this season, and now the team will have to weigh signing Johnson and Redding to short-term, team-friendly deals versus looking to younger talent.
4. How do the Ravens improve the offensive line?
All things considered, the Ravens' offensive line performed pretty darned well in 2011. That group wasn't even set until late in the preseason and then had to deal with a couple key injuries, but it held tough and did a nice job coming together as the season progressed. Now the task will be trying to keep that momentum going into next season despite the possibility of some moving parts on the interior of the line. Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs is an unrestricted free agent, and given the Ravens' other contract issues (see above) and the fact they already spent big money on guard Marshal Yanda last year, it's hard to see Grubbs returning. Then, there's the fact that six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk (who is now 35) is considering retirement.
The Ravens will likely return left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who played well last season and has a year left on his contract, and Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher will be back, as well. But if Grubbs and Birk leave, how will the Ravens look to fill the holes along the line? Does veteran center Andre Gurode come back on a short-term deal? Does 2011 third-round pick Jah Reid move inside and fill the left guard spot? Do the Ravens look for O-line help early in the draft? There are lots of questions to answer here.
5. Where will Ray Lewis' future replacement come from?
Seemingly every draft the last three or four years, experts have projected the Ravens taking an inside linebacker early in the draft and grooming him as Lewis' replacement. Other than Tavares Gooden back in 2008, however, that hasn't happened. The Ravens have looked at other areas early in the draft, and now, with Lewis preparing to enter his 17th NFL season, they don't have an heir apparent in place. With Lewis aging and his play starting to decline - don't jump all over me here, folks - it's about time the Ravens address inside linebacker either through free agency or high in the draft.
Making this situation even trickier is that starting weakside linebacker Jameel McClain is an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens will need to decide how to address both of their inside linebacker spots going forward so that they have enough guys in place should Lewis get injured or (gasp!) decide to step away sometime in the next year or two.