Some see the calendar flipping to April as a real sign of spring. Flowers bloom. The sun shines. Life is good.
In the NFL world, the advent of April means it's Ozzie time.
While "offseason winners" annually dominate the headlines in March, when free agency owns the day, the Baltimore Ravens operate on a different timetable. General manager Ozzie Newsome, assistant GM Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh and the rest of this brilliant staff establish a consistent culture of winning by owning the NFL draft. Their collective scouting savvy -- and clear-eyed decision-making -- shapes good teams into great ones. It's truly a work of art.
Right before last season's playoffs began, I pumped up Baltimore as a highly dangerous No. 6 seed, a team that would not be one-and-done. After the Ravens vanquished the rival Steelers, I said "Joe Flacco is New England's worst nightmare." And midway through the third quarter of that divisional-round bout, that was certainly the case, as Flacco had four touchdown passes and the Ravens led 28-14. The Patriots, of course, came back to win in thrilling fashion, but my initial inkling rang true: Baltimore was a serious contender by last January. And that's what I envision this team being in the 2015 campaign.
Some wonder if Baltimore has taken a step back this offseason. Longtime Ravens star Haloti Ngata was shipped to Detroit. Torrey Smith fled to San Francisco. Pernell McPhee hit the free agency jackpot in Chicago. How can you let that kind of talent leave the building? Because Ozzie and Co. have proven, year in and year out, that they can replenish the talent pool -- at a far lesser cost.
Let's start with Ngata. While he undoubtedly carved out a fantastic career in Baltimore, the 31-year-old is just no longer the player he used to be. So Ozzie wisely flipped him for more draft capital, receiving a fourth- and fifth-round pick. Speaking of the draft, that's what made Ngata expendable in the first place. Over the last two drafts, Baltimore added a pair of talented defensive tackles: Timmy Jernigan (Round 2, 2014) and Brandon Williams (Round 3, 2013). This is the circle of life for a shrewd franchise.
How about the big-ticket free-agent defections, Smith and McPhee? Well, back in early March, I listed those guys as the top two players on my column about free agency risks. My reasoning was pretty simple ...
Smith ($40 million) and McPhee ($39 million) both received highly lucrative five-year deals. That's just too much money. Now, Smith is a great teammate and definitely has the ability to stretch the field, but he's only eclipsed 50 receptions once in four NFL seasons. Considering San Francisco gave him $22 million guaranteed, you'd expect a bit more bang for that buck. And while McPhee broke out as a versatile pass rusher in 2014, recording 7.5 sacks, he still started just six games in his four seasons with Baltimore. I like his game, but not at the price he commanded on the open market.
And whaddya know, two of the deepest talent pools in the 2015 NFL Draft are wide receiver and pass rusher. Having just gained three compensatory picks -- it's not really the offseason until Ozzie gets his picks! -- Baltimore will enter the college marketplace with 10 selections, including six in the first four rounds. With that kind of currency, I expect the Ravens to do what they do: find gems, increase depth and generally win the draft.
Baltimore will draft Smith's replacement -- in fact, I expect Ozzie to double-dip at receiver -- and find some pass-rush help to atone for the loss of McPhee. With Dennis Pitta's status still up in the air, the Ravens will grab a tight end. They'll upgrade the defensive backfield and further improve an already-stout offensive line. They'll snag some true difference-makers, guys like C.J. Mosley, who received my vote for 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Simply put, they'll crush it.
Fact is, there is no "team to beat" in the AFC. Oh, the Patriots are the Patriots and, so long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are in the fold, they'll always be respected as top-tier Super Bowl contenders. But the team's starting corners in Super Bowl XLIX, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, just left in free agency.
I love what the Colts have done so far this offseason, brilliantly supplementing Andrew Luck with savvy vets in an effort to win the title right now. And they might. I might pick them in August. But comparing the overall squads at the moment, Baltimore has a better run game -- yes, Frank Gore was a great pickup, but you have to factor in the Ravens' offensive line and Justin Forsett -- and a superior defense.
Baltimore's offense was great last season -- ranking eighth in scoring -- and the unit will put up plenty of points again in 2015.
Yes, the Ravens lost a fabulous offensive coordinator, with Gary Kubiak taking the head-coaching gig in Denver, but they snagged a spectacular replacement in Marc Trestman. With an earned reputation as a quarterback whisperer, Trestman will get the most out of Flacco's cannon arm. And with Forsett re-signed, Baltimore's ground attack, which ranked eighth in the NFL last season, should chug right along. I spoke with Steve Smith this week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and the veteran wideout said Trestman will incorporate some of Kubiak's offense to replicate the success Forsett just enjoyed in his breakout campaign. Smith, in fact, waxed poetic about his new offensive coordinator. He loved how Trestman flew down to Charlotte (where Smith still makes his offseason home) to simply talk. That goes a long way with veterans like Smith and Flacco.
So, yes, the offense is in good hands. The defense is legit -- and it should be better with a fresh influx of draft talent and healthier defensive backs.
In a league where competitive balance rules, having a great structure is vital. The Ravens' continual success isn't luck. It's the residue of amazing design.
It's the wizardry of Oz.