Ravens still team to beat in AFC North

The Ravens will look for Pernell McPhee, Jah Reid and Paul Kruger to fill holes in the starting lineup. Getty Images

No team has taken more hits than the Ravens since free agency began two weeks ago.

Baltimore watched a Pro Bowl offensive lineman (guard Ben Grubbs), perhaps their grittiest player on defense (linebacker Jarret Johnson), and an underrated role player (defensive end Cory Redding) go elsewhere and has yet to sign anyone to replace them.

There's no question that the Ravens are among the biggest losers after the first wave of free agency. But it's debatable how much ground the AFC North champions have lost to the Steelers, Bengals and Browns.

At this point in the offseason, the Ravens remain the team to beat in the division. I'm not saying that. The Ravens' history is.

There should be serious concerns about Baltimore's holes at left guard, outside linebacker and defensive end. There should be doubts whether Baltimore can reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season. The Ravens' rebuttal is, look at last year.

It was eight months ago when the Ravens entered training camp without the two leading receivers in franchise history (Derrick Mason and Todd Heap were released) and an eight-year starter at nose tackle (Kelly Gregg). Baltimore also went through the preseason with its two projected starting cornerbacks (Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr) sidelined by injuries.

The situation in 2011 was far more dire than the one facing the Ravens right now. Team officials, though, didn't share the panic of their fan base.

The Ravens are more like a college team than an NFL one in how they handle personnel. When they lose someone in free agency, they act like the player graduated and they plug in another one of general manager Ozzie Newsome's recruits, eh, I mean draft picks.

Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith (second-round pick) replaced Mason. Second-year tight end Ed Dickson (third round) stepped in for Heap. Second-year nose tackle Terrence Cody (second round) moved into Gregg's spot. And Lardarius Webb (third round) and Cary Williams (signed off the Titans' practice squad) became the surprising starters at cornerback.

Before the 2010 season, you could have made a sound argument why the Ravens would miss the postseason. By the end of it, Baltimore was one pass away from advancing to the Super Bowl.

It certainly helped the Ravens in last year's playoffs that Peyton Manning didn't play and Ben Roethlisberger was banged up. Still, the Ravens swept the division and made it to the AFC Championship Game after making changes at eight starting spots.

There aren't as many questions as last year, but perhaps the question marks loom bigger.

They need Art Jones or Pernell McPhee to start at defensive end. Both exceeded expectations in backup roles, but can either one start?

"Those two guys are excited," coach John Harbaugh said. "They're disappointed to see Cory go. They learned so much from Cory. Cory was such a great mentor for those guys. I talked to Pernell on the phone and I've seen Art here twice in the last couple weeks. I could hear Pernell smile and I could see Art smile."

They need Paul Kruger to start at outside linebacker. Kruger made an impact in the pass rush, but is he strong enough to stop the run?

"When we lost Jarret, I went back and watched all of Paul’s tape," Harbaugh said. "I watched every one of his plays from last year, just to try and get a feel just for whether or not we’d be comfortable with him in there. He did a nice job in coverage, he set the edge well. Obviously, he’s a very good pass-rusher. I believe Paul can do it. I think he will do it."

They need Jah Reid to possibly start at left guard. Reid practiced at guard last year, but can the converted offensive tackle really make the switch?

"I would say right now, today, he’s the left guard," Harbaugh said. "He’s got to earn that spot but we’ll be continuing to look for players. Our goal would be to put the five best offensive linemen on the field. Jah, certainly, I’d like to see him be one of those guys, but it’s up to him to earn that spot.”

Honestly, I could see a couple of these situations not working out. The Ravens might end up really missing Grubbs and Johnson. But I also had my doubts that Torrey Smith and Cary Williams would work out as starters last season, too.

Like the Steelers, Packers and Giants, the Ravens are known for making more shrewd free-agent moves than splashy ones. Baltimore can still improve its team with late additions like they did with Bernard Pollard and Bryant McKinnie last season. The Ravens can also address some of these holes in the draft.

It's been a rough start to free agency for the Ravens. But they're used to it by now. They lose in March and win in January. Until that track record changes, it's tough to bet against them.

“Obviously, we’ve been very patient and we’ve been working, trying to do things that will put us in position to make our team better,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’re kind of methodical in our approach. We want to make smart decisions, we want to make wise decisions."