Ravens need impact players, not projects, in this year's draft

With deep class and extra time to prepare, team needs to fill immediate holes

Ozzie Newsome

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome speaks at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports / February 22, 2014)

The onus for the Ravens in this year's NFL draft is to come away with a player who can have an immediate impact, not another project.

It's hard to evaluate a draft until three or four years later. But last year's was filled with projects, which is part of the reason why the Ravens finished 8-8.

The Ravens can't afford another draft like last season, when only rookie safety Matt Elam played an important role. They shouldn't have to, because even the Ravens admit this draft class is loaded.

"I would say it's deep if you draft the right players," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said last week during the team's annual predraft luncheon. "That's the challenge. There are a lot of players in this draft; we just have to draft the right guys."

So, there can be no excuses. It's a deep draft, and the Ravens, like the 31 other NFL teams, have had about an extra two weeks to prepare this year. Plus, the team's recent drafts have been OK, but not up to the high standards that the Ravens have set.

Now, they can make amends.

Whether they stay at No. 17 or trade up or down, the Ravens should be able to find players to fill a hole or two immediately, unlike the projects they drafted a year ago in fullback Kyle Juszczyk, outside linebacker John Simon, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Rick Wagner.

And please make drafting an offensive lineman the No. 1 priority. There has been speculation that the Ravens have targeted North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron as their top choice and that general manager Ozzie Newsome would trade up to as high as No. 13 to get Ebron.

Ebron is a great player, by most accounts, but can he run block? Can he pass block? Can he stop Joe Flacco, a quarterback the Ravens paid $120.6 million, from being smacked around like a pinata?

A year ago, the Ravens offensive line was the weakest unit on the team — and it still is, until proven otherwise. Wagner starting at right tackle? Really.

The two starting guards, Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, still have to prove they can recover from injuries, and starting center Jeremy Zuttah is only a slight upgrade over Gino Gradkowski.

So, the Ravens might be able to draft Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan or Notre Dame guard-tackle Zack Martin at No. 17. Or they could trade back and still grab Stanford guard David Yankey.

Flacco was sacked 48 times last season, and he took a beating. The Ravens' season was officially over when they lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale, but it essentially ended Dec. 16 when Flacco injured his knee against the Detroit Lions.

Once he lost his mobility, the season was finished for the Ravens. Those hits take their toll on a quarterback after six years in the NFL, and the Ravens have to get Flacco more protection.

The Ravens have other needs as well, particularly at free safety. Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might be available when the Ravens pick in the first round if they stay at No. 17.

Newsome has said he wants a center fielder, a safety who can make plays in the middle or on deep balls. Last year, the Ravens basically played with two strong safeties in Elam and James Ihedigbo.

The Ravens have to find some backups at inside linebacker, too. Veteran Daryl Smith is one starter, and the Ravens have listed Arthur Brown as the other, but there are questions about Brown's size. He was projected to battle for a starting position last season but missed extensive time with injuries. He had only 15 tackles.

"There are some good players," DeCosta said. "Obviously, [C.J.] Mosley from Alabama is a really good player, a highly rated prospect. [Ryan] Shazier from Ohio State is a really good prospect as well. You've got a bunch of other guys that are good players at that position. We're going to draft the best available player. We're going to rank every player.

"We like Arthur Brown; we drafted him last year, as well, in the second round. Bringing Daryl back was a big thing for us. So, there are a lot of good players at linebacker, outside linebacker, all over the defense in this year's draft. We hope to get a few defensive players in here this year, if we can, and linebacker will certainly be a big part of that, for sure."

The Ravens also have a need at running back, preferably a big back. Starter Ray Rice's immediate future is still in doubt, and backup Bernard Pierce had shoulder surgery during the offseason.

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