Still smarting from their stunning, last-minute loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that knocked them out of playoff contention, the Baltimore Ravens entered 2018 mode earlier than anyone in the organization envisioned in mid-December.
The Ravens finished 2017 with a 9-7 record, missed the playoffs for the third straight year and now find themselves at an organizational crossroads.
John Harbaugh will return for his 11th season as head coach, and embattled offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will be back as well. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has announced his retirement, and former linebackers coach Don "Wink" Martindale will take his place.
Fan disenchantment is as high as it has been in the team's 22-year history, and the Ravens are a middling 40-40 in the regular season since winning the Super Bowl five years ago. Playoff pedigree? Roughly half of the Ravens' 53-man roster has never made the playoffs in Baltimore.
As the Ravens begin the hard work of rebuilding their roster with an eye on 2018, here are five critical questions:
1. Will the Ravens prioritize offense in this draft after all but ignoring it last year?
The Ravens went all-in on defense in last year's draft, using their first four picks on cornerback Marlon Humphrey, linebacker Tyus Bowser, defensive lineman Chris Wormley and linebacker Tim Williams. Of the four, only first-round pick Humphrey made a significant contribution.
The offense was virtually ignored in the draft. For the first time in team history, the Ravens drafted no skill position players on offense. Their only two offensive draft picks in 2017 were offensive linemen Nico Siragusa (fourth round) and Jermaine Eluemunor (fifth round).
Coming off a season in which the offense was ranked among the worst in the league for much of the year -- the Ravens ended the season ranked 27th overall, 11th in rushing, 29th in passing and last in passing yards per play -- the Ravens desperately need to add offensive playmakers.
The Ravens' track record of drafting and developing wide receivers is abysmal, but Alabama's Calvin Ridley has to be a candidate for the Ravens at No. 16.
2. Who will play wide receiver?
The Ravens need an athletic tight end. They need depth at inside linebacker. But two months before free agency begins, wide receiver is the team's most dire need.
Mike Wallace led the Ravens this season with 748 receiving yards on 52 catches, but he is a free agent in March. Jeremy Maclin had 40 catches for 440 yards, both career lows, and had one touchdown after Week 2. He is under contract but could be a salary cap casualty. Former first-round pick Breshad Perriman is coming off a lost season in which he had 10 catches for 77 yards. Michael Campanaro (19 catches, 173 yards) is set to become a free agent.
At this juncture, it appears the Ravens' most certain option among the receiving corps is Chris Moore, who had 18 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns and also showed big return potential with an 87-yard kickoff return against the Bengals during the season finale.
As usual, the Ravens don't have the cap space to be big free-agency players, and the marketplace at wide receiver is underwhelming, with Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins among the top options.
3. Which pending Ravens free agents should be a priority to re-sign?
Four Ravens starters are set to become free agents, all on offense: Wallace, tight end Ben Watson, offensive guard James Hurst and center Ryan Jensen. Other pending free agents include oft-injured defensive end Brent Urban and oft-injured tight end Crockett Gillmore.
Other free agents include Campanaro, former starting running back Terrance West, backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, offensive lineman Luke Bowanko, linebacker Steven Johnson and defensive back Brandon Boykin, who spent all season on injured reserve.
Given the Ravens' needs, the organization should focus its internal efforts on Wallace and Jensen.
Cleaning out his locker after the season, Wallace, 31, said he's interested in returning to the Ravens but noted that at this stage of his career, he is most focused on being "in the best situation that I can to win a Super Bowl. Hopefully it is here, but ... football is business. You never know how things are going to go."
Jensen, 26, thrived as the Ravens' starting center and no doubt noted that Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley signed a three-year, $25.5 million extension last month. Jensen proved to be a key factor in the Ravens' improved run game, and the Ravens love his physical, play-to-the-whistle (and sometimes past it) mentality.
If Jensen hits free agency, the Ravens could be outbid by a team with more cap space. His absence would leave a sizable hole in the middle of the offensive line.
4. Which players could be cap casualties?
As always, the Ravens are likely to create some cap space by letting veterans go. Their two key offensive acquisitions from last offseason -- Maclin and running back Danny Woodhead -- both could be on their way out.
Maclin carries a $7.5 million cap figure for next season, and the Ravens would free up $5 million in space by releasing him. Woodhead ($3.3M cap figure, $1.8M savings if cut before June 1) doesn't create as much space, but with the emergence of Alex Collins and the expected return of Kenneth Dixon, his role would be limited regardless.
Ditto for veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb. Once Maurice Canady returned from injured reserve, Webb's playing time was reduced to a handful of snaps, and Tavon Young is expected back as well. Cutting Webb would free about $1.75 million.
Cornerback Brandon Carr has a $7 million cap figure for next season, and the team would free up at least $4 million cutting him, but with Jimmy Smith returning from an Achilles tear, and the team's past problems with depth in the secondary, the durable veteran might still be worth the price.
Cutting tackle Austin Howard could clear up $3 million in cap room, but in that case the Ravens would need to find a starting right tackle.
5. How do the Ravens placate their disenchanted fan base?
The Ravens' organization has heard the boos and has noticed the empty seats. In December, team president Dick Cass acknowledged as much in a letter sent to season-ticket holders. "There are a number of reasons for the no-shows," Cass wrote, "but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor."
So too has been the team's .500 record during the past five seasons. The team has lacked offensive firepower for much of that span, and the return of Mornhinweg suggests more of the same.
There is no doubt that the organization understands its relationship with its fan base has cracks in the foundation. Although some issues clearly extend beyond the field, nothing will help seal those cracks more than winning games.
"I think [our fans] have great passion," Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference. "I think they love football. I think they want to see us be really good. I think they're tough people. That's what I love about Baltimore and their fans. Let's get it going again. Let's make it exciting. We'll do that by playing great football."