The 2016 NFL season is over for the Baltimore Ravens, who will be watching the playoffs from home for the third time in the last four seasons. An 8-8 record and yet another missed postseason is a bitter pill to swallow for Ravens fans who became accustomed to playing late into January during the early part of the Harbaugh/Flacco era. It is also upsetting because this is the first year since Super Bowl XLVII that the team doesn't have a legitimate excuse for its performance. In 2013, expectations were low for a team that had its roster severely depleted by retirements and free agency after winning the Lombardi the season prior. In 2015, a ridiculous rash of injuries that culminated in Joe Flacco's torn ACL prevented the team from returning to the playoffs after a respectable run the year before. But there are no such easy answers for the 2016 squad. They simply were not good enough.
And so the Ravens find themselves in an unenviable position. While they have enough talent to compete, thus making it hard to justify a complete rebuilding of the franchise, the status quo is not getting the job done. If they are going to return to prominence in 2017, they will need to walk a fine line this off-season. Here are some suggestions.
Draft like it's 2016
While a lot went wrong for the Ravens in 2016, one major bright spot was the performance of the team's 2016 draft class. The team drafted 11 players, and no less than six of them were major parts of the team by the time the season ended. First-round pick Ronnie Stanley exceeded expectations and, despite a minor mid-season injury, was one of the most consistent players on the squad. He and fellow rookie Alex Lewis could anchor the left side of the Baltimore line for the next decade. Running back Kenneth Dixon will likely be the team's starter in 2017 and has unlimited potential. On defense, cornerback Tavon Young played well enough to earn a starting role down the stretch, and LB/DE Matt Judon notched four sacks in his rookie campaign. Finally, there is WR Chris Moore, who has some work to do on offense but proved to be a major play-maker on special teams. And that's not even counting the other draftees who will look to improve and develop in the upcoming seasons.
For all the talk that Ozzie Newsome may be "losing his touch," the 2016 draft class may prove to be his best all-around performance as a GM. If he can have similar success this spring with a class highlighted by the 16th overall selection, Baltimore's time in the wilderness will be short.
Clear Some Cap Space
The Ravens have been up against the salary cap the past few years, largely due to the final years of big contracts for aging players. The team currently has the fifth-least amount of space to work with, and that simply won't cut it for a team looking to return to prominence. The easiest way to do this will be to cut some of these veterans and look to fill the void with younger, cheaper talent. Some key players on the chopping block include Elvis Dumervil (who has the team's fourth-highest cap hit next season), Lardarius Webb (seventh-highest), Ben Watson (14th-highest), and Kyle Arrington (17th-highest). Another player whose name will get thrown around is Terrell Suggs, but that doesn't make much sense when you look at the numbers; the guaranteed money in his contract means the team would only next about $1 million in space by letting him go, and he is worth more to the team than that.
Lock Up Young Free Agents
One benefit for the Ravens as the enter the 2017 off-season is that they do not have to deal with a multitude of crucial players being exposed to free agency. Not counting the retired Steve Smith, only four starters are unrestricted free agents (defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Lawrence Guy, tackle Rick Wagner, and fullback Kyle Jusczcyk), and I would argue only two of those (Williams and Wagner) are "must keep" guys. Williams is the big name in this group, as he has developed into one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in the game. Wagner isn't going to go to the Pro Bowl anytime soon but has done an admirable job the last few seasons. While Ozzie and company should try to keep all four, keeping Wagner and especially Williams in the fold is crucial.
While fixing the Ravens this off-season will not be an easy job, it is also far from impossible. The structure this team has in place can result in a championship-caliber squad year after year. If the coaches and management are able to address these key issues, there is no reason to think that Baltimore won't be in the postseason this time next year.