There are plenty of reasons for fans to question if the Ravens are a legitimate championship contender in 2016. The Ravens are in one of the least enviable positions of all NFL teams in relation to the salary cap. The core of the team is aging. They have several payers who have underperformed in comparison to their large contracts. The team decided to retain unpopular defensive coordinator Dean Pees. They also lost more than their fair share of close games in 2015.
The front office has not been able to replicate their traditional success in drafting Pro Bowl players lately and missed on several free agent acquisitions last offseason. The Ravens also have a few important pending free agents that could exacerbate the issue of multiple pressing positional needs already on the roster. The rookies drafted this spring may not be able to thrive immediately. The Ravens hopes have been crushed by injuries for three consecutive seasons with no guarantee that an even older roster will be able to avoid decimating injuries in 2016. These are all reasons to be concerned about the Ravens promise in 2016 and all reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Beginning at the top of the organizational structure, general manager Ozzie Newsome currently holds his highest first round draft pick since 2000, he has made seven picks in the top ten during his tenure with the Ravens, five of the seven have earned Pro Bowl awards. Ozzie also has an early second round pick which is essentially an extra first rounder for a team accustomed to late draft position, and if wide receiver Breshad Perriman can return from injury that is equivalent to adding three total first rounders in one offseason. The depth in the 2016 draft crops also conveniently aligns with the Ravens positional needs at pass rusher and defensive back. While the rookies added to the Ravens roster may not become stars in their first season, there is a strong likelihood that Ozzie will find some very good players at premium positions in the upcoming draft.
The next group on the Ravens totem pole is the coaches. Head coach John Harbaugh has been able to keep the Ravens competitive in the vast majority of their regular season matches. He has won ten playoff contests compared to five losses. Harbaugh has been able to win playoff games with a rookie quarterback in 2008, win the Super Bowl with an aging defense in 2012 and win on the road with a rebuilt roster in the 2014 playoffs. He may have done his best coaching work last season, as he kept the team competitive when the injuries mounted an fighting when many teams would have folded.
Harbaugh's biggest flaw is being overly loyal to his assistant coaches, however, the Ravens brought in the very experienced Leslie Frazier to coach their secondary for the coming season. Frazier could end up taking over for Dean Pees as defensive coordinator if Pees falters during the season, but Frazier's Tampa-2 scheme may still be too passive to excel in the current NFL climate. Still, the fact that the Ravens brass were not content with the secondary coaches from 2014 and enlisted Frazier's help prove that they as an organization are unwilling to settle for defensive mediocrity. If the defense does not improve in 2016, owner Steve Biscotti will surely ask his head coach to find better defensive coaches for the following seasons.
Onto the players, the Ravens still have core contributors at key positions in their prime years. Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco will be 31 years old at the start of the 2016 season and is signed through the 2019 season. Elite offensive lineman Marshal Yanda signed an extension that will keep him in Baltimore for another four seasons and plays a position conducive to longevity. Cornerback Jimmy Smith improved his play down the stretch last season and is also under contract through the 2019 season. The Ravens defensive front-7 has a strong nucleus including linebacker C.J Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan who will be playing for the Ravens for at least two more seasons. Nose guard Brandon Williams will be a free agent after the 2016 season, but is not expected to break the bank with his next contract.
Important members of the 2014 draft class such as tight end Crockett Gillmore and defensive end Brent Urban will be with the team through 2017 at a minimum. The team also added quality complimentary players in the last draft, tight end Maxx Williams, outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and running back Buck Allen, all who will be playing under team friendly contracts through 2018. And the Ravens advantage in special teams should continue with punter Sam Koch under contract for another five season and kicker Justin Tucker likely on the verge of earning a long term contract.
Perhaps the best sign for future prosperity is the long term salary cap outlook. Many Ravens fans assumed the Ravens would be in a better cap situation this offseason, when Haloti Ngata and Ray Rice came off the books. That speculation proved premature as Marshal Yanda and Jimmy Smith's new deals, along with Joe Flacco's ballooning contract proration consumed most of the available space. The hidden benefit of not drafting as many Pro Bowlers as normal recently and having quite a few older players on the depth chart is that the Ravens will not have to pay as many future big contracts to players already on the roster.
As it stands right now, the Ravens would have approximately $30 million in cap space at their disposal for the 2017 offseason. The numbers will certainly change as players are signed this offseason and the next two draft classes are added. But the cap space figure could increase substantially if the league wide salary cap increases rises at the recent rate combined with the Ravens deciding to release or restructure some players. After many consecutive years of always have top performers in the pipeline to be handsomely paid, the Ravens will finally have some flexibility next offseason.
This future financial flexibility could allow the front office to splurge on a key free agent this offseason, possibly retaining their own offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele or making a splash with a star like free safety Eric Berry with a slightly backloaded contract structure. They could also be proactive in extending Brandon Williams and eventually Timmy Jernigan before their play reaches peak value. If the Ravens decide to be aggressive in building for the future, they can finally overcome the low leverage negotiations they have been in for most of Harbaugh's reign.
Striving for a championship in the 2016 season, before Father Time catches up with Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs is perfectly logical. The Ravens do have factors working against them in the short term which may or may not be surmountable. For the long term, the Ravens will have one of the best general managers in the league with an arsenal of assets, a proven top notch head coach, a franchise quarterback, a leader on the offensive line, a skilled cornerback and building blocks across the defensive front.
However the 2016 season unfolds and ultimately ends, one proverbial championship window may close as another window simultaneously opens wide.