OWINGS MILLS — Terrell Suggs knows the reality of this drill all too well.
No matter how successful a football team is, its locker room changes every year.
The Baltimore Ravens came up a few points shy of their goal of reaching the Super Bowl, falling in the AFC championship game to the New England Patriots primarily due to Lee Evans’ dropped pass in the end zone and an errant Billy Cundiff field goal.
“We all know the locker room will not look the same, it’s never going to look the same,” said Suggs, a Pro Bowl outside linebacker who led the team with 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. “That’s why a lot of us were really harping on getting it done. We’ll deal with whatever the offseason brings.”
For the AFC North champions, that will entail addressing pressing questions about their class of free agents and other contract situations.
The Ravens will conduct personnel meetings over the next few days at team headquarters to grade and evaluate all of the players on their own roster under contract for next year as well as pending free agents.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead of the Ravens in terms of offseason business:
1. The Ravens want to sign quarterback Joe Flacco to a multi-year contract extension.
Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti was adamant last year that the organization wants to lock up Flacco on a long-term basis.
Entering the final year of his original rookie contract, Flacco is due a $6.76 million base salary that includes him triggering a $5.4 million escalator clause. Plus, there’s a $2.1 million roster bonus.
The Flacco negotiations may be complicated by a difference of opinion between how much the Ravens are willing to pay him and his financial expectations.
While this shapes up as an extremely tough round of negotiations, this should ultimately get done.
2. The Ravens are likely to make Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice their franchise player, at a cost of roughly $7.7 million.
This situation may unfold the way the Ravens handled Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata: securing his services with the franchise tag before later signing him to a blockbuster contract.
Either way, Rice will remain in place next season as the focal point of the offense.
3. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, 36, has already declared that he has no intentions to retire, and free safety Ed Reed, 33, is also expected to return for at least one more season.
Based on both legendary defenders’ health and age, the Ravens will likely begin plotting contingency plans this year to eventually replace them within the next year or so.
Both are under contract for 2012.
Lewis is due a $4.95 million base salary and carries a salary-cap figure of $6.85 million.
Although he led the Ravens’ defense in tackles last season, he missed four games with a right toe injury and was much less of a factor in pass coverage on third downs.
Reed fell to three interceptions during the regular season, but played well in the playoffs despite a sprained left ankle, a nerve impingement in his neck and a shoulder problem.
He’s scheduled to make $7.2 million in base salary next season and has a hefty salary-cap number of $8.5 million.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have roster bonuses due in March for Evans, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and strong safety Bernard Pollard.
After an injury-plagued season where he caught only four passes, Evans is unlikely to be back at his current scheduled salary of $3.275 million, salary-cap number of $5.607 million and a $1 million roster bonus due on March 18. Unless he accepts a significant pay reduction, he won’t be back.
The Ravens are generally pleased with how McKinnie and Pollard performed during their first seasons in Baltimore.
Keeping McKinnie requires paying a $500,000 roster bonus on March 18. He’s also due a $3.2 million base salary with a total salary-cap figure of $4.2 million. It’s a reasonable amount for a left tackle, especially if McKinnie reports in better shape this year by paying the price in the offseason conditioning program.
Pollard finished with 75 tackles, two sacks, one interception and a fumble recovery with 13 pass deflections, providing a hard-hitting presence in the secondary.
He’s due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 23, and the Ravens are expected to pay it. His base salary is an affordable $1.25 million.
4. The Ravens have several decisions to make on free agents.
That includes 13 unrestricted free agents, four restricted free agents and four exclusive-rights free agents.
Here’s how things might go with each classification of free agents along with a snapshot of the Ravens current salary cap estimations (link):
Unrestricted Free Agents
Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk has said he’s going to take some time to contemplate whether he wants to retire.
If Birk, 35, decides he wants to play again, the Ravens are open to having him back. This one might play out for a while as Birk makes up his mind.
Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs will be tough to retain, especially since the Ravens already made a $32 million investment in Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda last August that included a $10 million signing bonus.
Grubbs might be even more expensive, particularly if a bidding war ensues when free agency formally begins March 13 on the first day of the 2012 league year.
The Ravens traditionally hold onto successful first-round draft picks in the prime of their careers like Grubbs. However, this is reminiscent of when the Ravens let center Jason Brown walk to the St. Louis Rams because the price got too high.
Center-guard Andre Gurode represents a fallback plan for the Ravens at center if Birk retires. The five-time Pro Bowl selection played solidly in five starts at left guard when Grubbs was sidelined with a right turf toe injury, but was far from spectacular since he wasn’t at his natural center position.
The Ravens could also opt to go young and draft a center-guard during the first four rounds of the NFL draft in April.
Veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is a player the Ravens would ideally like to keep.
Johnson, 30, is one of the most durable players in franchise history, but fell to 56 tackles, 2 ½ sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery last season.
Because Johnson is one of the tougher, higher-character players on the team and there’s no proven replacement on the roster, the Ravens and his agent may be able to work something out on a short-term deal. Both sides are sufficiently motivated.
“I want to retire as a Raven,” Johnson said. “I hope to be a part of it, but business is just business. It’s going to work itself out.”
Special-teams ace and reserve inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo was the first free agent the team signed when John Harbaugh took over as the head coach four years ago.
Now, Ayanbadejo’s contract has expired.
Ayanbadejo, 35, made only nine special-teams tackles last season while battling injuries. Most special-teams guys don’t get new contracts at his age, but Ayanbadejo keeps himself in outstanding shape. Ayanbadejo is hopeful that he’ll be back, but the Ravens could opt to get younger on special teams.
Starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain filled in capably when Lewis was hurt, finishing second on the team with 81 tackles to go with one sack, one interception and two fumble recoveries.
McClain has been wanting to sign a contract extension with the Ravens for the past few years, but no negotiations were ever launched. A former undrafted free agent who has developed each year, the kind of young, affordable, established player the Ravens could hold onto for a relatively modest price.
Defensive end Cory Redding has emerged as a leader in the locker room and on the field. He had 43 tackles, 4 ½ sacks and two pass deflections last season.
The Ravens have a judgment call to make here: stick with the reliable Redding or pass the torch to younger players like Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones.
Reed isn’t getting any younger and backup safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura are both free agents.
Nakamura is valuable on special teams and has played well in spot action in the secondary. He could draw interest from other teams, but the Ravens would like to have him back at their price.
Zbikowski is expected to move on after losing his starting job to Pollard.
Re-signing blocking tight end Kris Wilson and reserve linebacker and special-teams contributor Edgar Jones are lower priorities for the team, but could come back for the veteran minimum.
Reserve defensive tackle Brandon McKinney had 14 tackles and one forced fumble last season.
The Ravens are unlikely to spend much if anything to hold onto him.
Restricted Free Agents
The Ravens are expected to extend high enough qualifying offers to prevent them from losing starting cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams and backup inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
Otherwise, Webb and Williams could draw interest from other teams. Especially Webb.
Webb led the Ravens with a career-high five interceptions and 20 pass deflections during the regular season and picked off three more passes in the playoffs.
If another team signed Webb to an offer sheet, the Ravens have the right of first refusal and seven days to decide whether to match the offer.
Williams had a breakthrough season with 77 tackles and 18 pass deflections.
The Ravens aren’t opposed to possibly signing Ellerbe to a longer-term deal depending on price.
Exclusive-Rights Free Agents
The Ravens can keep all of these players with a minimum qualifying offer, and that includes reliable long snapper Morgan Cox, reserve cornerback Danny Gorrer, linebacker Albert McClellan, the leading special-teams tackler, and outside linebacker Sergio Kindle.
Kindle’s status is complicated by the damage he suffered when he fell down two flights of stairs and fractured his skull prior to training camp of his rookie season after being drafted in the second round.
The former University of Texas star sustained hearing damage in one ear and has had to extensively rehab to regain his equilibrium and neurological functions.
Kindle was used sparingly last season after beating the odds to get back on the field at all, appearing in two games and registering no statistics on defense or special teams. Now, his future in the NFL remains very much in doubt.
The Ravens could wind up bringing him to training camp to compete for a job, but he’s far from a lock to make the roster again.