|Flacco deserves to be mentioned as one of the league's best quarterbacks. (USATSI)|
Team overview: The Ravens entered December with a 9-2 record only to lose four of their last five regular-season games. The finger-pointing had begun long before that, with the usual suspect bearing the brunt of the criticism: quarterback Joe Flacco. Turns out, the former first-round pick knew exactly what he was doing, leading a suddenly red-hot Baltimore team through the postseason that culminated with a Lombardi Trophy. For his troubles, Flacco was named Super Bowl MVP and, on Monday, signed a six-year, $120.6 contract extension.
Flacco's success coincided with Jim Caldwell replacing Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator in mid-December. Caldwell will remain in the position in 2013, no doubt welcome news to Flacco, who reportedly butted heads with Cameron during their four-plus years together.
Flacco's new deal means he'll count just $7 million against the Ravens' salary cap in 2013, and that frees up money to pursue the other important cogs from their championship team, namely: inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, outside linebacker Paul Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed. (Ellerbe and Reed are likely to return while Kruger and Williams will test free agency.)
What the depth chart tells you: An offense that was labeled inconsistent is suddenly one of the NFL's most dangerous. A lot of that has to do with Flacco, who, after much debate up till the moment he won a Super Bowl, is now among the league's elite quarterbacks. Anquan Boldin remains one of the league's most physical players, and Torrey Smith's deep speed opens things up for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. And Caldwell's willingness to embrace Ray Rice and the running game, something Cameron was often criticized for, makes the offense even more dynamic.
No mention of the Ravens' playoff run would be complete without a Jacoby Jones name-check. The wideout and returner was cut by the Texans last offseason, signed with Baltimore, and had arguably the two biggest plays in franchise history. The first, a 70-yard game-tying touchdown against the Broncos in the AFC divisional round and then a 108-yard kickoff return to start the second half of the Super Bowl. There's also Justin Tucker, who came off a phenomenal rookie season, and underrated punter Sam Koch.
Players to watch in '13 include guard Kelechi Osemele, a 16-game starter as a rookie; cornerback Corey Graham, who was a pleasant surprise after Lardarius Webb was lost for the season, and running back Bernard Pierce, a nice change-of-pace option alongside Rice.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: You can make a convincing case that general manager Ozzie Newsome is at the top of his profession. The Ravens have few needs. But with the retirement of Ray Lewis and Matt Birk, the roster could use depth at several key positions. If Ellerbe doesn't return, Baltimore could look to the draft for his replacement. Notre Dame's embattled linebacker, Manti Te'o, is a popular mock-draft option for Baltimore with the 32nd pick.
As it stands, backup center Gino Gradkowski is the front runner to replace Birk. Free agency doesn't offer much relief, which means the organization could target the position in the draft. Kruger is reportedly looking at $9 million-plus a year in free agency. That's too rich for the Ravens, especially with second-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw ready to move into the starting lineup. Cary Williams is also expendable because of Graham's emergence and Webb's return.
What will happen in 2013: Pretty much what we've seen unfold every year since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco arrived: double-digit wins, vying for the division title and a trip to the playoffs. The only difference between next year's club and the five versions that preceded it: Ray Lewis and the squirrel dance will have retired to an ESPN studio. But by the end of his Hall of Fame career, Lewis was more motivational presence than a football player. What he meant to this team won't easily be replaced. But in terms of on-field production, Ellerbe is already the better player.