Younger Ravens hope to extend success in 2011

The Baltimore Ravens are younger than last season. The big

question is: Are they better?

Longtime fixtures Derrick Mason, Willis McGahee, Todd Heap and

Kelly Gregg are gone, victims of a salary cap purge. All were key

contributors to a team that made the playoffs in each of the last

three seasons.

And all of them were over 30 years old.

Mason, the leading receiver in Ravens history, has been replaced

by Lee Evans, who is seven years younger.

”He’s fast, he’s made plays, and he’s a big yards-per-catch

guy,” coach John Harbaugh said of Evans. ”That helps a lot.”

Heap’s job has been taken over by second-year tight end Ed

Dickson; second-year pro Terrence Cody steps in for Gregg and

backup running back Ricky Williams comes at a much cheaper price

than McGahee.

Also missing from last year’s 12-4 team is cornerback Josh

Wilson, who signed as a free agent with Washington. Playing in his

place this season is first-round draft pick Jimmy Smith, who is

quite talented but dangerously inexperienced.

Two other rookies, wide receiver Torrey Smith and right tackle

Jah Reid, are currently projected as starters.

The Ravens aren’t in rebuilding mode, but there have definitely

been some significant tweaks to team that expects to overtake rival

Pittsburgh in the battle to win the AFC North.

”It’s probably a natural progression in this league,” Harbaugh

said. ”It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s just the reality of the salary

cap and the situation we’re in right now.”

There have been some positive additions to go with Evans and

Williams. Pro Bowl fullback Vonte Leach is an upgrade over Le’Ron

McClain, who was allowed to leave as a free agent, and safety

Bernard Pollard should make it easy for Baltimore to get over the

loss of free agent Dawan Landry.

If Leach can pave the way for Ray Rice and Williams in the

fashion he cleared holes for Arian Foster in Houston, the running

game should be sound. Quarterback Joe Flacco should benefit from

the addition of Evans and Smith, both of whom possess the downfield

speed that complements the steady hands of possession receiver

Anquan Boldin.

”This is a team that you sense has a chance to do something

special. I think they know that,” offensive coordinator Cam

Cameron said. ”I think they know it is going to take a lot of hard

work, and this group is not afraid to work. That’s what the Ravens

do. The young guys have filled in and followed the example of the

veteran guys.”

If the Ravens are to make another trip to the postseason,

Cameron’s offense will have to improve. Unfortunately, the right

side of the line is still under construction and the frail knees of

veteran center Matt Birk could be an issue,

Then there’s Flacco, who has been asked to take a bigger role on

the field and in the huddle in his fourth NFL season. Flacco is

confident he can step up his game and assert himself a leader.

”We’re going to have a lot more younger guys,” Flacco said.

”This is going to be our fourth year, me and Ray, and it’s just

time to kind of groom those guys and mold those guys the way we

want them, the way I want them. We will have that chance.”

Flacco got married during the offseason, and it was apparent

after the lockout that he did more than merely take a honeymoon and

lounge around the house.

”He’s in tremendous shape. He is as sharp starting off as I

have ever seen him,” Cameron said. ”We’re at the best starting

point with him going into the season than we have been since he has

been here. I haven’t flinched on anything that I have believed

about Joe Flacco since the first day I saw him. We have one heck of

a quarterback, and he happens to be a young quarterback.”

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is gone, replaced by the

fiery Chuck Pagano. But the mainstays of the unit are intact, which

means the opposition still has to worry about linebackers Ray Lewis

and Terrell Suggs, along with seven-time Pro Bowl safety Ed

Reed.

Baltimore’s biggest problem on defense last year was a pass rush

that produced only 27 sacks, 11 of them by Suggs. Linebacker Sergio

Kindle, who missed his entire rookie season with a fractured skull,

has been asked to team with end Paul Kruger to provide Suggs with

support from the other side.

”Paul is a relentless guy. He’s going to help the defense,”

general manager Ozzie Newsome said. ”Sergio? Sometimes you need a

little luck in this business. You need a bonus, and he’s our bonus

this year. The first reports we got is that he would never play and

now he looks like the player we drafted. The physical ability is

there.”

Newsome’s plan for this season was to make the Ravens younger

without a dropoff in talent. His logic is sound. Whether it works

or not remains to be seen.