- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has built two Super Bowl champion teams. He was the architect of one of the most dominating defenses in NFL history. He selected a Hall of Fame offensive tackle in Jonathan Ogden with his first draft pick and should have two other picks headed to Canton with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
This offseason, Newsome will certainly add to his reputation if he can fix one of the worst offenses in team history. He has the money to do it. The Ravens have $28 million in salary-cap space, the sixth-highest in the NFL. But can he find the right players to put around quarterback Joe Flacco?
Those who follow the Ravens' offseason mantra "In Ozzie We Trust" believe he can assemble the right supporting cast. Others may have their doubts, based on history. The one smudge on Newsome's impeccable track record has been his inability to put together a high-flying offense, outside of the four games in the 2012 Super Bowl run.
The Ravens have gone 16 straight seasons without a top-10 offense, which is tied for the fifth-longest streak in NFL history. The previous Baltimore offense to reach that mark was the 1997 team, which featured Vinny Testaverde throwing passes and Bam Morris running the ball.
Last season, the Ravens’ defense was playoff-caliber, and their offense was one befitting a last-place team. When you look at the statistics on offense -- 29th in total yards and 25th in points scored -- it’s hard to believe the Ravens finished 8-8. The only way they become a Super Bowl contender again is to improve an offense that failed to score more than 20 points in 11 games last season.
“[Coach John Harbaugh] and I have had several conversations of what we think we need to do to get our offense better -- an offense that can not only just perform in crucial times like we did down the stretch [in the 2012 Super Bowl run], but to be able to play a 60-minute football game,” Newsome said at the end of the season. “He and I are very much on the same page."
The Ravens have already made strides toward that end, hiring Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator and signing tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year deal. But their work is far from over.
Every move that Newsome makes this offseason should be done with the intention of helping Flacco, whom the Ravens know can be a championship quarterback with the right players around him. They saw it 14 months ago.
Their priority in free agency has to be upgrading the offensive line. Their top pick in the draft has to be either a wide receiver, tight end or offensive tackle.
Newsome's strategy in free agency has always been about patience. Right player, right price. Don't make a splash early. Find the deals when the market settles down.
There's a vibe that the Ravens may show more urgency this year. Newsome said at the end of the season that the Ravens would be "active" in free agency and indicated last month that the team will "use every avenue" to get better. If the Ravens want to have an aggressive offense, perhaps it's time to get more aggressive in adding players.
Newsome hasn't hidden the fact that he wants to get bigger on the interior of the offensive line and add a reliable pass-catcher who can convert third downs as well as run after the catch.
The best free-agent center, Alex Mack, might be off the Ravens' wish list after the Cleveland Browns put the transition tag on him Monday. The other options are more under-the-radar, 20-something prospects like Brian De La Puente (New Orleans), Ryan Wendell (New England) and Joe Hawley (Atlanta).
There are more options at wide receiver in free agency, although there are risks with each one. Denver's Eric Decker averaged 86 catches the past two seasons, but he had Peyton Manning throwing the ball to him. The New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks has size (208 pounds) and youth (26 years old), but he didn't score a touchdown last season. New England's Julian Edelman caught 105 passes in 2013, but his numbers may be the result of the Patriots' system. Seattle's Golden Tate led the league in yards after catch per reception (7.75), but he has never had more than 64 receptions in a season.
"I think we’ve identified the type of receiver that we want," Newsome said. "And I think before the 2014 season ends, we will have that guy on our football team.”
What has made Newsome one of the best decision-makers in the NFL is his ability to recognize his mistakes and avoid repeating them. Last offseason was a tough lesson, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a sixth-round pick and didn’t replace him in either free agency or the draft. They re-signed offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie based on four games the previous year. They believed Gino Gradkowski was ready to be a starting center, and didn’t have a proven safety net other than A.Q. Shipley. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
As a result, Flacco threw a career-high 22 interceptions and running back Ray Rice averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry. The dismal year for the offense extended to the offseason, when Rice was arrested last month in an altercation involving his fiancée at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J.
By next week, Newsome will start his plan of reconstructing the Ravens' offense. A year from now, everyone will know whether Newsome did enough to improve it.