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Opinion: Development of recently drafted players is the real key to the Ravens offseason

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Instead of noting the litany of positions the Baltimore Ravens need to address this offseason, it is easier to list the handful of positions that are set for 2017. The Ravens have proven commodities that are not potential cap casualties or impending free agents at three of the eleven starting offensive positions; quarterback Joe Flacco, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda. On defense the team is set at six of the eleven spots, namely defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, corner Jimmy Smith, slot corner Tavon Young and safety Eric Weddle.

Entering the offseason with a great deal of uncertainty at 14 starting positions is a arduous position. The Ravens do possess enough salary cap space to retain a few of their lower profile free agents, Kyle Juszczyk and Lawrence Guy appear to be the most likely. They may also decide to keep a few of their overpaid veterans, such as Lardarius Webb and Mike Wallace. Or they may decide to be aggressive in releasing their old players who have not played up to their contracts, enabling the Ravens to shop for some of the more desirable outside free agents.

The 2017 NFL draft is another opportunity to fill holes on the team. With a supremely talented draft class, the Ravens could find as many as four rookie starters in April. Executing a typical roster reloading plan should supply solutions at nine of the 14 uncertain positions. And the Ravens also boast some promising but not totally proven young players. Between Breshad Perriman, Darren Waller, Alex Lewis, Kenneth Dixon, Michael Pierce and Matt Judon, the Ravens should be able to develop at least three capable starters after another offseason of training.

The situation is not necessarily bleak, every team in the league has a weakness somewhere on their roster. However, what separates the true championship contenders from the pretenders are the superstars that elevate the play of their teammates and allow their teams to overcome their roster deficiencies. Scanning the Ravens roster, they simply do not have enough elite players to overlook their weaknesses.

By this logic, Baltimore’s best chance to contend next season is to field a well rounded team. Even with an ideal offseason, including some favorable outcomes in free agency and lucky breaks in the draft, the Ravens do not have the resources to build a complete roster without development from their recent draft picks.

In 2016, the team received extremely minimal contributions from their four most recent Day 2 draft selections. Neither 2015 second round tight end Maxx Williams or third round defensive tackle Carl Davis recorded a statistic last season. 2016 second round linebacker Kamalei Correa and third round defensive end Bronson Kaufusi combined for four total tackles last year. In order for the Ravens to turn their fortunes around, they must mine production from these investments.

The front office has allocated considerable draft resources to the defensive line and tight end position. In addition to Davis and Kaufusi, they spent recent fourth round picks on Brent Urban, Za’Darius Smith and Willie Henry. Before they traded up for Maxx Williams, they invested a third rounder on Crockett Gillmore and a fifth rounder on tight end Nick Boyle. Not all of these young players will pan out, but the Ravens clearly need some of them to develop into starting caliber contributors.

The offensive line and secondary have been weaknesses for the majority of the Ravens post Super Bowl XLVII era. If their ‘best player available’ draft strategy and ‘right player, right price’ free agency mantra result in more investment in the defensive line, tight end or other positions with promising depth, they will not have the assets required to fix the secondary or offensive line. After some questionable roster management, their margin for error is just too slim. Without better personnel in the secondary and offensive line, the Ravens will remain mired in mediocrity.

The time has come to release old tight ends Dennis Pitta and/or Ben Watson, let nose tackle Brandon Williams go and pencil in Breshad Perriman, Kamalei Correa and Kenneth Dixon for starting jobs. The Ravens drafted these talented players for a reason, throwing them into the fire would allow the team to bundle their resources in order to retain Ricky Wagner or acquire another veteran difference maker.

The real key to the offseason for the Ravens is the development of their recently drafted young players.