As the Baltimore Ravens' brain trust continues to formulate its offseason plans, here are the five biggest questions facing the team:
1. What happens with Haloti Ngata? Something needs to be done with Ngata because the Ravens can't afford to bring him back with a $16 million salary-cap number, the highest on the team. The assumption is the Ravens will attempt to sign Ngata to an extension similar to the one reached with Terrell Suggs that will reduce his cap number and give him a chance to retire as a Raven. This is far from a slam dunk, especially when you consider talks went nowhere last year. Ngata might believe he can make more with another team, and the Ravens might not want to invest a four-year deal in a 31-year-old lineman. They already have Ngata's replacement in Timmy Jernigan, and a four-game suspension in 2014 for performance-enhancing drugs certainly didn't help Ngata's cause. There is no clear-cut right call.
2. Who will be the Ravens' free-agent targets? You have to start by monitoring the players who get cut. In recent years, the Ravens have rarely signed unrestricted free agents because they count against compensatory picks. When looking at their biggest needs, keep an eye on the potential releases of Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson, San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, New York Jets running back Chris Johnson, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, Oakland safety Tyvon Branch and Eagles cornerback Cary Williams. The Ravens won't be big-time spenders. They simply don't have the cap room to do so. But the Ravens have found great value in each of the past two offseasons with pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil (2013) and wide receiver Steve Smith (2014), both of whom were cap cuts.
3. How many of the Ravens' own free agents will they retain? The Ravens have signed less than 40 percent of their own free agents during the past three years. If the Ravens continue that trend, they will keep six of their 15 free agents (CB Antoine Cason, NT Terrence Cody, LS Morgan Cox, TE Owen Daniels, RB Justin Forsett, CB Danny Gorrer, DE Lawrence Guy, LB Pernell McPhee, SS Jeromy Miles, G William Rackley, OL Jah Reid, CB Aaron Ross, SS Darian Stewart, WR Torrey Smith and QB Tyrod Taylor). The most likely to leave is McPhee, who should get a deal that is out of the Ravens' price range, as defensive lineman Arthur Jones did last year. The big question marks are Smith, Forsett and Daniels. All three were important pieces to the offense last season, but the Ravens won't overspend on any of them. The most likely to return are role players such as Cox, Miles and Guy.
4. How will the Ravens fix their secondary? It's reasonable to believe cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Will Hill will return as starters as long as Smith comes back healthy and Hill stays out of trouble. The biggest issue is cornerback Lardarius Webb, whose $12 million cap hit ranks third on the team. His injury history and mediocre play don't warrant an $8 million salary. The Ravens can try to get him to agree to a pay cut or release him ($2 million cap savings if all the dead money is absorbed in 2015 or $8 million in cap savings if designated as a June 1 release). The Ravens' decision will come down to whether they can get a cornerback who is as good as Webb and won't cost as much. Where the Ravens really need to upgrade is at strong safety and depth at cornerback. At safety, the Ravens can't rely on Matt Elam or Terrence Brooks as the starter, based on their play in 2014. They also need to add a cornerback in free agency and the draft. The Ravens never adequately replaced nickelback Corey Graham, who left in free agency last year.
5. Does Dennis Pitta play this season? The Ravens have to know whether they are going to need a starting tight end before free agency begins March 10. After being publicly optimistic about Pitta for the past two months, coach John Harbaugh was more noncommittal about the tight end two weeks ago. He said he couldn't give any updates after Pitta, who has suffered two serious hip injuries in consecutive seasons, saw a couple of specialists. Pitta's availability is critical, because Crockett Gillmore is the only tight end who played last season and is under contract. If Pitta can't play this season, tight end becomes a priority. The Ravens can either re-sign Daniels, add an unrestricted free agent (Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas and Charles Clay are the best available), sign someone who has been cut (Vernon Davis and Brent Celek are potential cap cuts) or select a young prospect early in the draft (Minnesota's Maxx Williams, Miami's Clive Walford, Michigan's Devin Funchess, Florida State's Nick O'Leary and Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman are considered the top five).