The Ravens' surprising decision Wednesday to cut Bernard Pollard, the hard-hitting and tough-talking safety who led the Super Bowl champions in tackles last season, opens up just $1 million of salary-cap room. So at least on the surface, the move appears to go beyond simple finances.
While team officials have yet to comment on Pollard's release, it continues a trend of offseason activity that has the Ravens' roster — particularly on the defensive side — getting younger, thinner, quieter and in some cases, cheaper.
A little more than a month since the Ravens finished a surprising playoff run with a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, seven members of that team who started games this past season are gone and several other key performers are free agents, including defensive backs Ed Reed and Cary Williams, and seem poised to leave as well. Reed will visit the Houston Texans on Thursday.
"That's a lot of players and a lot of key guys on the defense to lose," said former Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger at his news conference Wednesday after he signed with the Cleveland Browns. "I am sure that there is a plan in place and that's a great organization. I feel like there's always going to be a plan, but that is a lot of good players leaving. I was really surprised when I heard about a lot of those moves."
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no title-winning team has lost more than five Super Bowl starters before the following season. In short order, the Ravens already have matched that number and that doesn't include Kruger, a pass-rushing specialist who parlayed a team-leading nine-sack season into a five-year, $40 million deal with the rival Browns.
Some of the moves were inevitable and expected. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the long time face of the franchise and a future Hall of Famer, retired after his 17th NFL season at the age of 37. One year Lewis' junior, center Matt Birk retired following his 15th season and his first Super Bowl victory. Another senior member of the team, reserve guard Bobbie Williams, was let go last week after he played sparingly last season.
Then came some surprises. On the eve of free agency, the Ravens sent Anquan Boldin, a hero from their playoff run and quarterback Joe Flacco's most trusted target, to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick in April's draft. The trade was consummated only after the 32-year-old Boldin declined to take a pay cut on his $6 million salary for this coming season. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome admitted that it was an "unpleasant" move to make.
Then the market opened Tuesday and not only did the cash-strapped Ravens quickly but not-surprisingly lose Kruger, they watched Dannell Ellerbe, a priority for them to re-sign, agree to a five-year, $35 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. When healthy, Ellerbe had been one of the Ravens' best defensive players last season and was viewed as one of the answers to life after Lewis.
The fifth key defensive player from last year's squad was then jettisoned Wednesday when Pollard, 28, was let go following a season in which he made 98 tackles, two sacks and an interception while playing much of it with cracked ribs.
"Well Raven Nation it's been fun," Pollard said on his Twitter account. "My time in Baltimore is done... Thank you!"
A league source later confirmed that Pollard had been released, which leaves the Ravens without their two starting safeties.
"They've lost a lot of guys but when you look at them individually and look at the depth chart and what they can do, they have some guys they can plug in there," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens' scout who is currently an analyst for NFL Network. "It's not like they are totally caught with nothing. You get [Jameel] McClain back, they're probably going to add another inside linebacker. They still have a dominant player up front in [Haloti] Ngata, they have [cornerback Lardarius Webb] coming back from an injury. [Terrell] Suggs is still a good edge rusher and they feel great about their corners. I just feel like everything with them is 'the sky is falling' and I'm kind of like, 'Whoa.'"
Ravens' fans should certainly be used to the roster defections. Two offseasons ago, the Ravens cut ties with running back Willis McGahee, wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap and nose tackle Kelly Gregg and none of the losses prevented them from reaching the AFC championship game. Last offseason, they watched Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs and defensive stalwarts Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding leave in free agency. Eleven months later, they celebrated the organization's second Super Bowl.
"They've been able to for the last couple of years whether it's through free agency or draft or waiting until the final cuts of training camp, to bring guys in that help them win games," said Mason, the Ravens' all-time leading receiver who still has close ties to the organization. "If you're going to judge the Ravens, judge them off their history. Their track history is very good. Yes, you've lost a lot of good players but it happens. It's football."
Jeremiah pointed out the Ravens' history in drafting well — and they could have as many as 12 picks in next month's draft — and their past success in finding free agent bargains later in the signing period. Last offseason, the Ravens made unheralded free agent additions with the signings of wide receiver/kick returner Jacoby Jones and cornerback Corey Graham, both playoff heroes. The free agent market is still deep in several positions of need for the Ravens, including linebacker and safety, and the Ravens are confident that they have already found their first bargain by agreeing to a three-year, $8 million pact with big defensive tackle Chris Canty.
In reality, the Ravens' top decision markers foreshadowed what's currently happening. At the season-ending news conference last month, owner Steve Bisciotti and Newsome promised to not make the same mistakes that hamstrung the organization the last time it won the Super Bowl. Following their Super Bowl XXXV victory, the Ravens restructured or extended the contracts of a boatload of their veterans in an effort to make a run at defending their title. When the Ravens were eliminated in the playoffs the following year, the nucleus of the team was gutted.
"We will not repeat what we did in 2001 because we are trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time," Newsome said last month. "We have a great nucleus of young players, players who are just hitting into their prime that we are going to build this team around. We are not going to be restricting contracts and do all of those different things to be able just to maintain this team to make another run. But … that doesn't mean that we don't want to try to go and repeat."
The moves to this point have helped the Ravens inch closer to their organizational goals. The team has already gotten considerably younger as Lewis, Birk, Williams and Boldin were among four of the six oldest players on the team and Reed is also in that group.
The team has also gained some financial flexibility going forward, which should help next offseason when the salary cap numbers of Flacco, Webb and others rise significantly, and tight end Dennis Pitta and offensive tackle Michael Oher are among those eligible to hit free agency. The front office's unwillingness to extend Boldin's deal was the latest example of their reticence to add more money on the books for next season.
If there was any lingering question after the Ravens made Flacco the highest paid player in NFL history earlier this month, there isn't any more with the overhauling of their defense. The Ravens' identity has shifted to the offensive side of the ball, a transition that started this past season. With the likes of Lewis, Boldin, Pollard and maybe Reed — all vocal players who weren't afraid to challenge coaches and teammates — now gone, the Ravens are in ideal position to morph into Flacco's team.
"I think people are looking at it from a standpoint like a racehorse. Their vision is blocked right now. They see straight ahead and nothing else," Mason said. "As fans, you appreciate that but you have to see the big picture. Ozzie understands what he's doing. He's been down this road before. He's not going to detract from the team without having a plan."
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