The Ravens came tantalizingly close to a Super Bowl appearance in 2011, and several key players responded to the disappointment with determination. Then came free agency, with starting guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Jarret Johnson and other key contributors moving on. The Ravens need to fill those holes and also to lay the foundation for a future without some of their star players.
Interior offensive line: Grubbs chased the cash to New Orleans, where he’ll fill the vacancy created by the departure of Carl Nicks. Unless the Ravens add a free agent, they’ll be relying on a young player to replace Grubbs. The question is whether they go with one of the guys currently on the roster — or whether they fill the spot with a rookie. The Ravens also need to be thinking about life without center Matt Birk. Even though he plans to play two more years after pondering retirement, it would make sense to have his successor on the roster now, so that he can learn from one of the best centers of the past generation.
Linebacker: Both on the outside and the inside, the Ravens need linebackers for the present and the future. Johnson must be replaced in 2012, and Ray Lewis eventually will need to be. Plenty of Ravens fans are fascinated by the possibility that their favorite team will take a shot on Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict, who would benefit greatly from the direct influence of one of the greatest inside linebackers of all time.
Receiver: With Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, the Ravens arguably have their best tandem of starting wideouts in franchise history. Behind them, the Ravens don’t have much of anything. A large-bodied, sure-handed player like Boldin would be a good addition, given that the 31-year-old Boldin will be hitting the end of the road long before Smith.
Safety: Ed Reed has mused about retirement in the past. He’s now creating the impression that he plans to keep going. Either way, the Ravens need to be ready for the day when Reed is done. It likely will come without much warning.
Left tackle: Bryant McKinnie fell into their laps last year after the Vikings decided they’d had enough. Pleased with performance but leery about his attitude and conditioning, the Ravens have decided to keep McKinnie for another year. They need to have someone else ready to go, or they’ll be scrambling like the Vikings did once the Ravens decide they’ve had enough of McKinnie.
The Ravens have every reason to think they’ll get back to the playoffs in 2012, for the fifth straight season. And they could win at least one postseason game, also for the fifth straight season. But they still have some key areas of the roster that need to be addressed before they can take the next step and play for the team’s first Super Bowl win since 2000.