When will quarterback Joe Flacco return from knee surgery? Coach John Harbaugh reiterated last week that the team expects Flacco to be ready at the start of training camp in late July as long as there are no setbacks. That’s a realistic timetable given that he had surgery to repair his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments on Dec. 8, and the general recovery period is six to nine months. But there is a level of uncertainty because Flacco has never had a significant injury in his football career. If Flacco’s recovery stretches to nine months, he would be in danger of missing the season opener. The other order of business is reworking Flacco’s contract. His salary-cap number balloons to $28.55 million (third largest in the NFL in 2016), and the Ravens need to reduce that before the start of the league year on March 15. But it would be a major surprise if the sides can’t strike a new deal.
What position should be the Ravens' priority in the draft? Cornerback. This has been the most neglected position on the defense. The Ravens have selected a cornerback in the first three rounds only once in the past six drafts. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Ravens set team records for fewest interceptions with six (five fewer than any other season) and most touchdown passes allowed with 30. Lardarius Webb can no longer start on the outside (he played safety in the season finale), and Shareece Wright isn’t an NFL starter. There is a glaring void for another starting corner alongside Jimmy Smith as well as a playmaker with ball skills. With a top-10 pick in the draft, Baltimore should cross its fingers that it can land one of the top two cornerbacks (Florida State's Jalen Ramsey or Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III). In a division with the likes of Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, the Ravens can’t have a hole at corner.
Who are the projected salary-cap cuts? The most likely cap casualties are offensive tackle Eugene Monroe ($2.1 million in cap savings) and defensive end Chris Canty ($2.15 million). Monroe has been a major disappointment, missing 16 games (including playoffs) since signing his five-year, $37.5 million ($11 million signing bonus) before the 2014 season. Canty, who is a good leader and run defender, could be seen as expendable because Baltimore has drafted young defensive linemen such as Brent Urban and Carl Davis. Other players who represent significant cap savings are: running back Justin Forsett ($2.3 million), linebacker Daryl Smith ($2.625 million) and cornerback Kyle Arrington ($1.43 million). The Ravens can wait five months to make a decision on tight end Dennis Pitta. Cutting Pitta after June 1 would spread his dead money in 2015 ($2.2 million) and 2016 ($4.4 million). Baltimore would then create $5 million in cap space on June 1.
Which Ravens free agents are returning? The big question mark is offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. It looked like there was no way he was returning after the Ravens signed Marshal Yanda to an extension because few teams pay big money to two guards. But his chances of coming back increased when Osemele moved from left guard to tackle. The Ravens could decide Osemele is their long-term answer on the blind side and release Monroe. The other high-profile free agent is kicker Justin Tucker. But Baltimore is either going to sign the NFL’s second-most accurate kicker to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. The deadline to use the tag is Feb. 22. There’s no chance that the Ravens are letting Tucker walk. The Ravens did a lot of preemptive work this year when they signed 2016 free agents Yanda, Jimmy Smith, safety Will Hill and punter Sam Koch to extensions.
What's the one thing that absolutely needs to change this offseason? Find playmakers. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame this dismal season on injuries. But the Ravens were struggling long before eight starters were placed on injured reserve. Baltimore’s biggest problem is the lack of players who can change games. On offense, the Ravens produced just six touchdowns of more than 20 yards. On defense, Baltimore forced a team-record low 14 turnovers – eight fewer (22) than any of the 19 previous seasons. The hope is 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman will provide a spark at wide receiver after not playing a down in 2015. But there is still a desperate need for players who can deliver big plays on both sides of the ball.