Fauber: Too soon to write off Ravens

Rarely does a professional football team win the Super Bowl only to fall off the map of perceived competitive relevancy just one month later, but that is exactly how the Baltimore Ravens’ offseason has played out up to this point.

Shortly after beating San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, the Ravens signed quarterback Joe Flacco to a monster deal and then watched as many of the key components to their championship run departed from Baltimore. Iconic linebacker Ray Lewis and longtime center Matt Birk both retired while Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Danelle Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams were all lost to free agency. Oh, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers.

All of those departures have left many NFL analysts less than thrilled about the Ravens’ chances to repeat as Super Bowl champions in the 2013-14 season, and honestly it is hard to see Baltimore making a return trip to the championship game this season.

But I will say that it’s not fair to write off the Ravens as a legitimate contender for the Lombardi Trophy — at least not this early.

For one thing, Baltimore still has Flacco under center — the same quarterback who was drawing comparisons to Joe Montana during last year’s impressive postseason run. I’ve never considered Flacco to be among the elite quarterbacks in the game right now, but he does belong on the next rung of the quarterback ladder below the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Although Flacco’s numbers have never been eye-popping, he proved from the start of his rookie season in 2008 that he can win the big games. In his first season, Flacco became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, and he has won a postseason game in each of his first five seasons, also an NFL record.

Flacco has improved with time, and he will now be playing under a shiny new six-year, $120.6 million contract. Flacco will need to prove that the Ravens’ money was well spent by building upon last year’s performance, which he appears poised to do.

Flacco will certainly have help around him on offense, as running back Ray Rice provides as good an option as any in the league out of the backfield. Rice has the ability to make the big play running and receiving, and the Ravens should once again have incredible balance on offense with Flacco and Rice in the backfield. The presence of Bernard Pierce in the backup running back slot should also help by keeping Rice fresh, something that worked out well for the Ravens last season.

The big question mark on offense for Baltimore has to be at wide receiver, where the loss of Boldin certainly presents a glaring void. However, Torrey Smith could work himself quite nicely into that No. 1 receiver slot, and the combination of Smith and Jacoby Jones provides Flacco with two reliable deep threats. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are also solid receiving options at tight end.

On the other side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense will look quite odd this season with the absence of both Lewis and Reed, who were the faces of the franchise for years.

Lewis’ leadership will be missed, but Reed’s absence at safety could be the most important, as the Ravens will lack experience in a defensive secondary that also lost Pollard and Williams. Lardarius Webb — who missed most of last season with a knee injury — should provide a significant boost at cornerback in his return, and Jimmy Smith could emerge as a strong option at the other corner spot.

It could take a while for the young guys like rookie safety Matt Elam (Baltimore’s first-round draft pick) to get acquainted with the NFL, but Baltimore’s secondary will benefit from a potentially terrifying pass rush consisting of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil, who signed with the Ravens in late March.

The Ravens will look much different than they did a year ago, and it remains to be seen whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Baltimore will be significantly younger, but the question is whether the lack of experience will hurt the Ravens this year in their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

I don’t know whether the Ravens will run the table again this season, but let’s be careful not to underrate them. After all, they are still the defending Super Bowl champions.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com