Ravens' Arthur Jones smiles before the Ravens play the… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Now that the 2013 season is over, the Ravens will begin part two of their rebuilding process. There won't be the cleansing of superstar talent like last offseason, but it will be almost as interesting.
A team that prides itself on having a strong front office can't afford many mistakes, because the Ravens are only $7 million under the salary cap.
To fill many holes, they are going to need strong free-agency periods and a good draft. There can't be a lot of misses like last season with free-agent busts such as safety Michael Huff and defensive end-tackle Marcus Spears.
"We're not ever going to be content with not making the playoffs," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's just not something that's going to be OK, with me personally, or any of us —[general manager Ozzie Newsome] or any player here. That's what makes it tough and disappointing. We expect to do that."
Last year, the Ravens lost some big names as they waived safety Bernard Pollard, traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin and allowed safety Ed Reed to hit the free-agent market and sign with the Houston Texans. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis also retired after 17 seasons.
This offseason won't be as dramatic. The Ravens have 14 unrestricted free agents, and one of those is retiring (receiver Brandon Stokley).
Some of those who won't return are easy to predict, such as tight ends Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, and others are harder, such as defensive tackle Terrence Cody and wide receiver Jacoby Jones.
However, two players the Ravens might not be able to afford are tight end Dennis Pitta and defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Pitta missed most of the season with a hip injury but showed he has rebounded, including getting eight catches for 63 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. He should command at least $3 million a season.
Jones was the team's top and most complete defensive lineman. The Ravens would love to keep him because of his character, work ethic and strong play. But he might end up like former Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whom the Ravens lost to the Miami Dolphins in free agency after last season.
Another top priority for the Ravens has to be rebuilding the offensive line, easily the most unproductive in team history. The Ravens have two high-profile unrestricted free agents in tackles Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe.
The Ravens shouldn't bring back Oher. A No. 1 pick in 2009, he has played his way out of both tackle positions. He has become a liability, especially with his frequent illegal-procedure penalties.
The Ravens will try to keep Monroe. He isn't a Pro Bowl performer but was solid this season and had a strong presence. The Ravens won't throw a big contract at him, but the offer will be reasonable. If he re-signs, the line will have more continuity.
"That would be awesome," Monroe said. "I loved my time here and feel like I fit in pretty well. I came in here and played well every game, and I'd like the opportunity to do that here again."
The Ravens also have two big decisions to make in the secondary — both strong safety James Ihedigbo and cornerback Corey Graham are free agents. Ihedigbo was the team's second-leading tackler with 101. He actually deserves a new contract but plays the same position as Matt Elam, the team's top pick in April.
It's hard having two strong safeties on the field at the same time, and Elam acknowledged that he wants to play that position instead of free safety. The top pick usually gets what he wants.
Graham was steady and led the team in interceptions with four. It's conceivable the Ravens could reach a deal with Graham with a reasonable offer.
"I'm just grateful that these guys gave me an opportunity to show what I can do," Graham said. "This year, things went all right. Obviously, things didn't go as planned. We didn't finish the way we wanted to finish."
The Ravens will also make a strong effort to re-sign inside linebacker Daryl Smith, the team's top tackler with 123. He wasn't spectacular, but certainly better than Josh Bynes, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain, who might start if Smith moves on.
To make salary cap room, the Ravens need to restructure some deals and approach defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Ngata is scheduled to make $8.5 million in base salary next season, with $16 million against the cap. Suggs has a $7.8 million salary, with $12.4 million going against the cap.
That's outrageously high for what they contributed this season. Ngata had a solid year, but Suggs disappeared in the second half. Both appeared to wear down.
If the Ravens can recoup some cap room, they should be in decent shape to make a run at one or two prominent free agents from other teams.
They also have to draft players who can play right away. Barring a trade, they will pick at No. 16 or 17 overall, and that gives them some leverage.
They could trade up for a big impact receiver or trade down in the round and get one or two quality offensive linemen. Regardless, the Ravens have to make a splash.
"What they do upstairs is something that we can't control as players," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "Whoever they bring in or whoever is not going to be here, hopefully we can mold guys into the Raven-like mentality."