|Even as his career winds down, Ed Reed remains one of the league's best safeties. (Getty Images)|
I didn't say old; older, with both going season to season.
Yes, the Ravens were one catch from reaching their first Super Bowl under John Harbaugh, and, no, there's no reason to believe they can't be that close again. But the clock is ticking.
QB: In every one of Joe Flacco's four years in the NFL, the Ravens reached the playoffs -- twice advancing to the conference championship game. And in every one of those playoffs, Flacco won at least once. That's good. In the 2011 conference championship game, he drove the Ravens the length of the field on Baltimore's last drive for a game-winning touchdown ... except Lee Evans dropped the pass. So, the Ravens took the game-tying field goal ... except it went wide. Don't blame Flacco. The guy has a 48-24 record, including the playoffs, and last season finally beat Ben Roethlisberger -- twice, no less. He is solid, he is durable, he is entrenched and he's in line for a big raise sometime between now and 2013 -- especially after coach John Harbaugh called him "a premier player" at this week's owners' meetings.
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RB: Ray Rice isn't just the team's best offensive player; he might be the team's best player, period. He can run. He can catch. He can block. He scores touchdowns. In short, he's the most important part of an offense that carried Baltimore to its second conference championship game in four years. But here's the question: Who's his backup? For the moment, it's Anthony Allen, a seventh-round draft pick who's a big but inexperienced back. Harbaugh said he'd like to add another via free agency, but the cupboard is nearly bare. My guess: The Ravens find that next guy in the draft. They don't, however, have to look for their next fullback. Vonta Leach is one of the best in the business.
WR: Despite missing two games, Anquan Boldin led this group in catches and was the go-to guy when the club needed a second-half rally -- as it did in a come-from-behind victory over Arizona. But he turns 32 this season and is slowing down. Besides, he's not a true No. 1 receiver. Rookie Torrey Smith was impressive, especially down the field, but he has to be more consistent. He drops too many passes and doesn't run precise routes. Undrafted LaQuan Williams jumped Tandon Doss on the depth chart, but he's little more than average, and I think you get the picture. With the Ravens due to make a commitment to Flacco, they should make a commitment to getting him another quality receiver.
OL: The loss of left guard Ben Grubbs is huge, with the Ravens thinking maybe, just maybe, they could plug the hole with free-agent Evan Mathis ... until, that is, he re-signed with Philadelphia. Re-signing Matt Birk was significant, but he's near the end of his career and is good for one more season, tops. The Ravens must start grooming someone to take his place. Michael Oher was OK at right tackle but needs to improve. That's another way of saying that while he was a star in the movies, he was not on the football field. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie must improve, too, and first things first: He needs to lose weight. He's too heavy and participating in an offseason program is essential. There are needs galore here, with the club looking for help at all positions and a replacement for Birk after this season.
DL: Haloti Ngata was superb the first half of the season, and nothing special the second, and there's a reason -- he played hurt down the stretch, bothered by a deep thigh bruise. He returns to right end, while Pernell McPhee or Arthur Jones takes over for Cody Redding on the left side. McPhee is the logical choice, producing six sacks in his rookie season. Terrence Cody is the starter at nose tackle, and he needs to be in better shape this time around. Though he was adequate, he tended to fade in the second half of games.
LB: Paul Kruger probably moves from defensive end to outside linebacker to take Jarret Johnson's place, and that isn't just a change of position; it's a change of tactics. Johnson was a terrific run stuffer, someone who could set the edge; Kruger is a pass rusher, producing 5.5 sacks last season. Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs anchors the other side, with Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain (who was signed to a three-year deal) in the middle. On the surface, it appears a strong unit ... and it is ... for the moment. But Lewis is near the end of his career, and the Ravens must find an understudy. Sergio Kindle is still in the team's plans at outside linebacker, but it's time for him to make something happen.
DB: Lardarius Webb emerged as a dependable cornerback with a season where he led the team interceptions during the regular season and the league in interceptions in the playoffs. The other cornerback, Cary Williams, is physical and dependable -- leading the team in deflected passes -- and Jimmy Smith and special-teams standout Corey Graham are decent options if someone is hurt. Safety Bernard Pollard is an aggressive, physical presence known for big hits -- with one of them toppling New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the playoffs. All-Pro Ed Reed is near the end of the line, but he's still one of the best in the game. While the Ravens lost Tom Zbikowski and Corey Nakamura, they signed overachiever Sean Considine as backup help.