NFL teams already have their stopwatches poised to time draft prospects at the annual scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Should Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o or Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree plummet to the Ravens' 32nd overall draft pick of the first round in late April, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock thinks the Super Bowl champions would bolt into a speedy 40-yard dash to select either coveted defender.
"If either one of those players slid to Baltimore, I think they'd sprint to the podium," Mayock said.
Te'o will be among the most scrutinized players at the combine due to the well-publicized revelation that he was duped by an acquaintance into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman.
With both highly-regarded linebackers projected as falling on draft boards due to off-field issues, analysts say that Te'o or Ogletree could get within striking distance of the Ravens.
The Ravens need inside linebackers because middle linebacker Ray Lewis is retiring, Dannell Ellerbe might leave via free agency and Jameel McClain still isn't cleared medically to play football again after suffering a spinal cord contusion in December.
"I think that the trouble that the two inside linebackers have had could ultimately help the Ravens," Mayock said. "To me, Manti Te'o should come off the board plus or minus 20. He could drop a little bit if people aren't buying into him like they used to."
For Te'o, how he answers tough questions from teams during interviews this week is expected to be huge for his draft outlook.
Just as important: How the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder fares in speed and agility testing.
"How far will he drop?" ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Te'o. "It depends what he runs. We're saying drop, but if he runs a great 40 time then he gets right back into that mix to be in the top-10 to 12 discussion. The 40 time's the most important thing. When you talk to NFL people, they've said to me on numerous occasions that it's about what he runs.
"Even though he had seven interceptions and lost weight and increased his agility and his coverage skills this year, what he runs is going to determine whether he's an every-down linebacker. So that's going to be the most important thing for Manti."
Ogletree was recently arrested and charged with driving under the influence, raising more character concerns following his suspension last season for reportedly failing a drug test.
Although known for trouble off the field, Ogletree's speed and pass-coverage skills are in demand from NFL defensive coordinators.
"Ogletree is potentially a top 10 player who has had significant issues," Mayock said. "You want to talk about a kid that's made for the NFL game with an ability to drop and cover, a former safety. He's fun to watch on tape. He flies. He's explosive.
"He's not great against the run, but, boy, in today's NFL, he's a great fit. But given the off field issues and the DUI recently, he's going to be one of the more intriguing guys to follow throughout the draft."
LSU's Kevin Minter and Kansas State's Arthur Brown are two other athletic inside linebackers often linked to the Ravens because of their aggressive, instinctive style of play.
During a season-ending news conference, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged that bolstering the defense is a top priority.
Nose guards Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu struggled for the majority of the season. Free safety Ed Reed is an unrestricted free agent now that his six-year, $44.5 million contract has expired. And outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who led the Ravens with a career-high nine sacks, will probably be far too expensive to retain as a free agent. Kruger is expected to command a contract in excess of $40 million.
"The middle of the defense, we think we've got to get better at defensive tackle," Newsome said. "We know that we have one linebacker retiring and one that's a free agent. We've got a safety that's a free agent and some young guys that have yet to step up. So, we would say the middle of the defense is probably the one area that we will concentrate on."
The areas the Ravens need to strengthen appear to match up well with the quality of the draft.
It's regarded as a strong class of safeties, led by Texas' Kenny Vaccaro along with LSU's Eric Reid, Florida's Matt Elam, South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger and Fresno State's Phillip Thomas.
"It's a very deep group of safeties this year," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "It wouldn't surprise me knowing how smart the Ravens are and how they manage the draft that they maybe wind up in the second or third round getting a good player at that position."
Vaccaro and Elam delivered several punishing hits last season, also displaying outstanding range.
"When you look at Vaccaro, I think his overall body of work was outstanding," Kiper said. "He's a guy who's an enforcer. He can cover. He's complete.
"Matt Elam's a guy I like. I've talked to some teams that think he's a second rounder, but I personally like what I saw of him. I raved about him all year. I think he's deserving to be in the late first round discussion."
Regardless of whether the Ravens keep former Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie on the roster as a free agent after he revitalized his career during the playoffs, they could use a blocker for the future to protect quarterback Joe Flacco.
Although the highest-graded tackles — Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) and Lane Johnson (Oklahoma) — will be long gone by the Ravens' pick, McShay believes the Ravens need to go after a tackle early in the first round if they don't address defensive tackle with Alabama interior defensive lineman Jesse Williams or defensive end with LSU's Sam Montgomery.
Offensive and defensive linemen are expected to dominate the first round.
"If you give Flacco time and you give those receivers enough time to get down the field, we saw how dynamic a combination that can be," said McShay, who mentioned Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker and Florida State tackle Medelik Watson as possibilities for the Ravens. " I think solidifying that future left tackle is probably the top need."
Although selecting last in the first round this year after winning the Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens have a long track record of winding up with Pro Bowl players regardless of where they're picking.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh stressed how the personnel department and coaches work in tandem to evaluate players.
"There really aren't clear lines of demarcation between people, scouts and coaches work together," Harbaugh said. "Everybody is involved. To me, that's the key to any success that we have."
NFL Scouting Combine
WHAT: Drills, testing, interviews, medical and psychological information to be recorded for more than 300 NFL draft prospects.
WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.
WORKOUT SCHEDULE: Players arrive Wednesday for medical exams and interviews with NFL teams, but field drills don't start until Saturday with the tight ends, offensive linemen and special teams players kicking things off followed by quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on Sunday, defensive linemen and linebackers on Monday and concluding with defensive backs on Tuesday.
MEDIA SCHEDULE: Players meet with the media beginning Thursday in groups by position.
DRILLS: NFL teams test for the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, three-cone drill, broad jump, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle. Players are also given the Wonderlic exam, an SAT-style set of timed questions, as well as a new intelligence test being administered this year.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: For various legal, character and maturity concerns, players will be under scrutiny from NFL teams.
BEST POSITION GROUPS: It's a close race between a talented offensive line class anchored by Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel and Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher and North Carolina offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and a deep defensive line group headlined by Florida State's Bjoern Werner, Utah's Star Lotulelei, Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, Florida's Sharrif Floyd, LSU's Barkevious Mingo and Oregon's Dion Jordan.
PASSING LEAGUE: This isn't regarded as a blue-chip quarterback class, but that won't decrease the amount of attention placed on Matt Barkley (USC) and Geno Smith (West Virginia).
ON THE RISE: Brigham Young defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has drawn comparisons to New York Giants defensive Jason Pierre-Paul because of his athleticism and is regarded as an ascending pass rusher. Also moving up on draft boards: Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who's lauded for his size and ability to run after the catch.
LOCAL PROSPECTS: West Virginia wide receiver and kick returner Tavon Austin, a former Dunbar star projected to go in the first round, leads a group of locals that includes University of Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg, Virginia Tech wide receiver Corey Fuller (Woodlawn) and Syracuse wide receiver Alec Lemon (Arundel). Austin is expected to excel at the combine.
RAVENS BUZZ: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree are among the most popular names being attached to the Ravens' 32nd overall pick of the first round in mock drafts along with LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery and Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
-- Aaron WilsonCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun