The real highlight for any NFL team's offseason is the annual draft, scheduled this year for April 28-30 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
Given the Ravens' notable draft history -- the team's mostly outstanding picks in its early years, contrasted with a number of flameouts this decade -- the annual selection meeting will again provide the spring and summer's most compelling storylines.
How will the new guys fit in? How did certain players fall the Ravens' way? Can they be expected to contribute quickly to a team eager to rebound from a 5-11 campaign? Can they stay healthy?
But before team player personnel assistant Corey Krawiec can turn in any cards to commissioner Roger Goodell at the podium in Chicago and set all of the aforementioned questions in motion, Baltimore has already gone through quite the range of emotions since the season ended without a playoff appearance for a second time in three years.
In short, it's been an offseason during which the Ravens simply haven't been themselves.
The team wanted to upgrade the roster with veteran playmakers, and it did so with stunning and uncharacteristic swiftness once the new league year opened March 9. Baltimore also endured the premature loss of one of its youngest and possibly brightest future stars.
The Ravens also announced the first additions and expansions to their 12-year-old practice facility, while seeing one of the biggest stars in franchise history again run into trouble off the field.
The rollercoaster ride has already been filled with pleasantly surprising twists and sometimes sickening turns. Here is a look at the Ravens' biggest offseason stories so far:
1. CB Tray Walker: 1992-2016
While Walker spent only one year with the Ravens after being an obscure fourth-round pick -- inactive for eight games during his rookie season -- his sudden passing after his dirt bike collided with a sports utility vehicle in his hometown of Miami March 18 made him, at 23, the youngest Ravens player to ever lose his life. Besides the fact that his 6-foot-2 frame made him a candidate to be a future contributor to a defense that needs to get more physical and create more turnovers, Walker's infectious laugh and humble, easygoing nature made him a front office and locker room favorite even before his first training camp began. His passion for life and football inspired head coach John Harbaugh to deliver a funeral speech that will likely be remembered for all time by the Ravens faithful.
2. Racking Up The W's
Usually, when the new league year and free-agent signing period begin, the Ravens -- bound by being customarily tight against the salary cap -- take it slow and wait until the first frenzied flurry of free agency is finished before making carefully chosen upgrades to their roster in areas of need. They couldn't afford to do that this year, so they struck with swiftness. Within one week, the team signed former New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (two years, $7 million), field-stretching ex-Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Mike Wallace (two years, $11.5 million) and hard-hitting former San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle (four years, $26 million). While general manager Ozzie Newsome expressly stated that filling such holes would not change the team's draft strategy, such proven talent -- albeit with all of them at age 30 or older by the time the season starts -- should temporarily calm some of the team's concerns.
3. Playing By New Rules
Harbaugh is one who boldly states his opinions on any and all subjects, whether they are football related or not. When the league's owners held their annual meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., in March, the Ravens' head coach helped put forth a proposal that would expand the use of instant replay to nearly every play except for a few specific instances, such as appealing holding or pass interference calls. That motion was temporarily tabled, and Harbaugh was further chagrined with a new rule that calls for kickoff touchbacks to bring the ball out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, as the college game is already doing. But, true to his nature, Harbaugh said he would instruct kicker Justin Tucker to adjust his kickoff style so that the league's best coverage team could get downfield and pin an opponent deep in its own end.
4. The Joy Of Six
On one hand, no team likes to be drafting very high in the first round, for it usually means it had a poor season the year before. But the Ravens' 5-11 performance last season landed Baltimore the sixth overall pick; the team hasn't taken anyone that high since tabbing eventual all-time franchise leading rusher Jamal Lewis with the fifth pick -- acquired in a trade with Atlanta -- in 2000. The Ravens got their usual haul of compensatory picks as well, but with seven picks in the first four rounds, only the second time in team history that has happened (2008), the team has a chance to make as significant of an impact with those selections as it did eight years ago, when the Ravens were also coming off a five-win season. Back then, the eventual draft haul included quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and safety Tom Zbikowski.
5. Up Goes Frazier
The Ravens' struggling secondary, one that has had more coaches than any other position unit in team history, hired a new leader this offseason in former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, one of the members of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense that is often linked with the 2000 Ravens as far as the
"greatest defense ever" debates are concerned. Frazier has made a lot of stops in his coaching career, with one of them being in Philadelphia, where he worked with then-Eagles secondary coach Harbaugh from 1999-2002. Frazier has also been part of a Super Bowl-winning coaching staff, working under Tony Dungy when he took the Indianapolis Colts to the title with a win in Super Bowl XLI, coincidentally, against the Bears.
6. Home Improvement
Since the Ravens' relatively new complex opened in October 2004, it has earned a new name (Under Armour Performance Center, 2012) as well as the distinction of becoming the team's new training camp site. But majority owner Steve Bisciotti is also prepared to invest $35 million into the first notable expansion of the already ornate facility through expanding the locker room and adding a second floor to the business side wing of the building.
"When we built it, there was room to grow," Bisciotti said at the owners' meetings. "We actually had pockets of space in that building that were unused, that were closed off. We had offices around them, but we had a few pockets of space, and we quickly busted through and made offices."
The changes are expected to take place throughout the spring and summer.
7. T-Sizzle Flames Out, Again
With Terrell Suggs being the Ravens' all-time leader in sacks, the former Arizona State linebacker has certainly provided his share of headlines on the field. But off it, he has been active as well, incurring one of his Achilles tendon injuries during an offseason basketball game in 2012, among other incidents. This spring, he was charged with driving on a suspended license and hitting a light fixture and not reporting the accident. He also left the scene of the incident. Another hearing on the case is scheduled for mid-May, and while the letter of the law dictates Suggs could see some jail time, it is expected that a stiff fine will instead be the sanction.
Issue 220: April 2016