OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Ozzie Newsome wasn't content with merely tinkering with a team that won the Super Bowl.
He tore apart the Baltimore Ravens and put them together again.
After the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in February to claim their second NFL championship, Newsome took a few days to savor the accomplishment. Then he took a hard look at the salary cap, the age of several key contributors and the team's most glaring weakness — an uncharacteristically 17th-ranked defense that nearly imploded in the second half of the Super Bowl.
What followed was an overhaul more appropriate for a club coming off a 3-13 season.
Newsome, the Ravens general manager since their move from Cleveland in 1996, couldn't do anything about star middle linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk stepping into retirement. He did, however, bring about the departure of six starters: Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin, Cary Williams, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe.
Newsome used that money to sign quarterback Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract and collar a variety of well-priced free agents. And now, just maybe, the Ravens are better than the team that went 10-6 before mounting an improbable, unforgettable postseason run.
The majority of the offseason acquisitions were designed to retool the defense. Instead of spending money to re-sign Reed, Kruger, Williams, Pollard and Ellerbe, Newsome signed Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, Marcus Spears and Michael Huff.
Which was pretty much the plan all along.
"We're more apt to create space to get a few really good veterans for small amounts," owner Steve Bisciotti said soon after the Super Bowl. "That's how Ozzie puts the icing on the cake every year."
Dumervil and Terrell Suggs give the Ravens bookends on the outside to rush the quarterback. Dumervil signed a five-year deal worth a maximum of $35 million after a fax foul up enabled him to leave Denver. The three-time Pro Bowl star arrived with a grander reputation and a cheaper price tag than Kruger, who received a five-year, $40 million contract with Cleveland.
"We've never had such a phenomenal talent on the opposite side of me as Elvis Dumervil," Suggs declared. "To bring him in here — in Ozzie we trust. It's a brilliant move by Ozzie Newsome."
Smith also came at a bargain — one year for just over $2 million — partly because he played in only two games with Jacksonville last season after missing 14 weeks with a groin injury. No one is confusing Smith with Lewis just yet, but he's already made a positive impression.
"He really does fit in. I'd say he is a consummate pro in a lot of ways," coach John Harbaugh said. "I really believe he's one of the most underrated defensive players in football over the last eight, nine years. We feel pretty fortunate that he's here right now. I'm really excited to have him on board."
Canty, meanwhile, has settled in nicely on the defensive line and Huff appears to be an adequate replacement for Reed, who bolted to Houston after failing to reach agreement with the Ravens on a new deal.
Throw in top draft pick Matt Elam, a safety, and second-rounder Arthur Brown, a linebacker, and this defense bears little resemblance to the model that nearly let a 28-6 lead vanish in a frantic 34-31 win over the 49ers.
Some of the players on the roster are looking to get back to the Super Bowl. Others are seeking the chance to experience it for the first time
"It's good to have been there. It's good to have experienced it," Harbaugh said. "By the same token, we've got a lot of guys that are hungry because they haven't been there before. So we'll just see how that mix plays out."
Cornerback Corey Graham was a free agent signee last year who developed into a key contributor in 2012. Now he's one of the veterans in a revamped backfield with plenty of depth.
"Pretty much everybody is capable of going out there and playing and getting the job done," Graham said. "It's going to be interesting. It's going to be a fun year for us. We feel like we can go out there and play with anybody."
No one can replace the leadership that Lewis provided over a sensational career that began when the Ravens arrived in Baltimore. Reed was also a vocal presence. As the Sept. 5 opener in Denver draws closer, others are moving forward to fill the void.
"Absolutely," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I think everybody else kind of sat back and just said, 'Well, that's really kind of not my role. That's kind of Ed and Ray's role.' Well, now those guys are stepping up, and I don't think it's any one particular guy who's saying, 'OK, I'm going to be the new Ray Lewis.' It's just a bunch of guys collectively stepping up and showing some leadership."
The transformation of the reigning Super Bowl champions remains an ongoing process. Since the start of training camp, Newsome signed wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe and Dallas Clark to make up for the loss of Boldin, who was traded, and Dennis Pitta, who dislocated his hip early in camp and is out for the year.
Stokley, Shiancoe and Clark are short-term fixes. Most of their teammates are part of the bigger plan to keep the Ravens in the playoff mix for years to come.
"We want to be one of the 12 teams that has a chance to win every year," Newsome said. "We want to make sure that in 2015 we have as good a chance to win as in 2013."
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