OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens lost several of their most trusted and efficient players during the offseason.
Now it’s time to find their replacements.
The Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, an accomplishment that can be attributed greatly to the continuity of the roster.
Playmakers Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata all have been key contributors. So were Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson and Ben Grubbs — none of whom will be in attendance when the Ravens have their first training camp practice on Thursday.
There are other issues that must be resolved before the season opens, not the least of which is Reed’s insistence that the Ravens fork over more than the $7.2 million he’s due in the final year of his contract. Reed skipped the team’s mandatory minicamp session, and although he is expected to be in camp for the first practice, the 33-year-old may not be in perfect frame of mind.
Coach John Harbaugh is also looking for a backup to Rice, who made this a positive offseason for Baltimore by signing a five-year contract that enabled him to shed his franchise tag. Ricky Williams, who played behind Rice last season, retired in February.
That is precisely what makes this summer different for the Ravens. There are plenty of holes to fill, and Harbaugh doesn’t have a whole lot of time to complete the task because a difficult September schedule lies ahead for the defending AFC North champions.
Harbaugh got a head start during minicamp.
“You are trying to find yourself as a team, what your guys do well, what they don’t do well, what they do together,” he said. “You start to get a feel for what direction you are going to go in all three phases, what you are going to be able to do really well. That process definitely carries on through training camp.”
Over the next six weeks, the Ravens need to solidify an offensive line that lost Grubbs as a free agent to New Orleans and was without 360-pound left tackle in Bryant McKinnie during minicamp. McKinnie was held out because of conditioning concerns, and there’s no telling yet whether he will be ready to suit up at the outset of training camp.
Baltimore also needs to replace Suggs, who tore his right Achilles tendon during the offseason and could be lost for the year. Suggs had 70 tackles and a career-high 14 sacks in 2011, which earned him a fifth invite to the Pro Bowl and NFL Defensive Player of Year honors.
“We will miss Terrell, but it’s next man up,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. Harbaugh hopes to fill the void with Paul Kruger and/or Sergio Kindle, who must immediately show their ability to mount a pass rush or general manager Ozzie Newsome might be forced to sign someone else.
Although overshadowed by fellow linebackers Lewis and Suggs, Johnson played in 129 straight games — including 80 straight starts — during his nine-year run with Baltimore. Now a member of the San Diego Chargers after leaving as a free agent, Johnson’s steady work and leadership in the locker room will be missed.
Top draft pick Courtney Upshaw, a standout linebacker at Alabama, now stands atop the depth chart. He’s raw, but willing.
“I just love his motor,” Lewis said. “He’s a kid that just loves football. And anytime you get a rookie that can just grab certain things . . . Trust me, forget the mental errors, because that’s just life. I don’t care what year you’re in, you’re going to make mental errors. But the way he approaches the game, his speed toward the game, and the way he flies around to the football, you really appreciate watching somebody like him.”
Upshaw will be operating for first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who got the job after Chuck Pagano left to become coach at Indianapolis.
Harbaugh can only hope the enthusiasm he saw last month carries over into the dog days of August and into a September that includes games against the Bengals, Eagles and Patriots.
“It was a really good minicamp,” he said. “I love the way we worked. I love the mindset of our guys, the very determined mindset. They are having fun, working hard, and that’s what you ask for — spirited.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)