Ravens could return younger to defend title

NEW ORLEANS -- The face of the franchise is gone. The schedule is tougher. But those aren't the only changes for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. If the Ravens become the first repeat Super Bowl champions in eight years, they will likely do it with a younger team.

In addition to linebacker Ray Lewis playing his last game, others who might have played their final one for the Ravens include safety Ed Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, center Matt Birk, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu. This means the Ravens will rely more heavily on a core of players in the primes of their careers, from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receiver Torrey Smith to guard Marshal Yanda to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Even if the Ravens lose Reed along with Lewis, the defense gets back cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Jameel McClain, two starters who didn't play in the Super Bowl because of injuries. The Ravens will also have a healthier Terrell Suggs.

The biggest decisions of the offseason will be about whether to re-sign Reed and retain Boldin. If both don't return, the Ravens could potentially have just two starters over the age of 30 next season (Suggs and fullback Vonta Leach).

Baltimore may see this as an opportunity to start rebuilding a defense that plummeted to No. 17 this season and part ways with Reed. ESPN's Todd McShay said this year's draft is deep at safety, and the Ravens found Reed at the bottom of the first round 11 years ago.

But coach John Harbaugh chatted with Reed about his future on the bus ride back from the Superdome on Sunday night. Free agency begins March 12.

“I want him back, he wants to come back,” Harbaugh said. “Ed’s a Baltimore Raven.”

The tougher predicament is Boldin. He was an impact player in the playoffs with 380 yards receiving and four touchdowns. But the Ravens, who are already $5 million over the salary cap, can save $5.5 million by cutting Boldin, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The problem is no one on the Ravens' roster is ready to step up and fill Boldin's starting spot.

The situation with Flacco is more clear cut. Baltimore will either sign him to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, said he will be talking to the Ravens soon.

"It's hard to argue that Joe's not the best guy out there now," Linta told The Baltimore Sun. "I'm incredibly proud of him."

The road back to the Super Bowl will be a difficult one. Based on the 2012 standings, the Ravens will have the league's fifth-hardest schedule next season. Opponents have a combined 137-119 record (.535). Baltimore will face the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, Arian Foster and Calvin Johnson.