Defensive players huddle during the first day of the Ravens'… (Sabina Moran, Baltimore…)
Months before they would lift the Lombardi Trophy into the confetti-filled air, the Ravens' top decision makers started to have regular discussions about the future of the organization and the potentially wide-scale changes it would face following the 2012 season.
As early as last October, they knew that a couple of players were pondering retirement. They knew many of their upcoming free agents were destined to leave for more money and more opportunity elsewhere, and they'd have to replace other veterans with players who were younger, cheaper or deemed better fits.
What the Ravens' brass couldn't have known at the time is that they'd preside over one of the biggest roster overhauls that a Super Bowl winner would ever experience. When rookies and select veterans take the field Tuesday, followed by the first-full squad practice of training camp Thursday, the Ravens will be without nine starters from the team that beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, to capture Super Bowl XLVII. Until this year, no reigning champion had lost more than five starters before the next season.
Since that Feb. 3 night in New Orleans, the Ravens have added 35 new players to their active roster, a process that has seen general manager Ozzie Newsome and the front office reload for the post-Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era through the draft and mostly under-the-radar free agent additions.
"As Ozzie said at the outset of this offseason, they weren't going to go through what they went through the last time that they won the Super Bowl. They were going to keep the roster green and growing and that's what they've done," said ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Bill Polian, the architect of the 2006 Super Bowl-champion Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. "It's difficult to do, but with the goals of that organization, they've done the right thing and at least from my perspective, they've done it awfully well."
Lewis and center Matt Birk retired after playing 31 combined seasons in the NFL, but for both football and sentimental reasons, there was a temptation for Newsome and coach John Harbaugh to bring back as many players from last year's team as possible. However, the established goal, from owner Steve Bisciotti all the way on down, was not to become the first repeat world champions since the 2003-04 New England Patriots. It was to build a young, deep and financially feasible roster that would allow the Ravens to compete for a Lombardi Trophy not just in 2013-14, but in the years ahead.
To that end, they traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin and released Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, key players whose 2013 salaries were deemed by the organization to exceed their projected role and production. They allowed Reed to sign with the Houston Texans without making an aggressive bid to retain the future Hall of Famer. They also watched linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Cary Williams, who all played key roles in the Super Bowl run, sign elsewhere.
Suddenly looking at a roster with myriad holes, Newsome made a couple of relatively modest free agent commitments to defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff. He made his biggest free agent expenditure on linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil, signing the former Denver Bronco to a five-year, $26 million deal.
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was re-signed to solidify the offensive line in front of quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens filled more needs in the draft, grabbing safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown, nose tackle Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, among others.
And after all the transactions, the Ravens have about $6 million in salary cap space to address any needs that may arise in training camp.
"They had to do this. I think it was economics that forced them into this situation" said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans and now an NFL Network analyst. "I'm impressed with what they did [but] I'm not surprised because they have a great front office. They showed patience and they had faith in their plan all the way. I don't know how many times I heard Ozzie say, 'The season doesn't start until September.' I think in some areas they are better and in other areas, they are not as good."
After the 2000 Ravens rode one of the NFL's most dominant defenses to the organization's first Super Bowl win, the front office vowed to keep the veteran-laden team together to make another run at a title. Future salary cap concerns were ignored and a boatload of veterans had their contracts extended or restructured.