Months before the NFL draft launches in May, the Ravens are unofficially on the clock.
The Ravens are in major need of reinforcements, particularly at wide receiver, offensive line and tight end, after a disappointing 8-8 season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season.
As the Ravens arrived Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine to evaluate college football prospects, draft analysts are praising this incoming rookie class as the kind that can provide an immediate influx of talent.
"From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I've seen in probably 10 years," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call this week. "That's been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts I've talked to throughout the league. I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top 20 pick this year is very similar to having a top 10 pick this year."
That's encouraging news for the Ravens after general manager Ozzie Newsome lost a coin flip to Dallas Cowboys executive Stephen Jones on Wednesday morning to determine draft positioning because the Ravens and Cowboys were tied. Now, the Ravens hold the 17th overall pick of the first round and the Cowboys pick 16th.
This marks the highest draft pick for the Ravens since they selected quarterback Joe Flacco 18th overall out of Delaware in 2008.
While the Ravens are unlikely to have a shot at explosive Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the first round unless they expend multiple draft picks to trade up into the top five selections to get him, the group of receivers offers diverse and accomplished options. Watkins is emerging as a coveted player with his ability to run after the catch.
"Watkins is a special player," Mayock said. "I usually don't get too excited about wide receivers in the top 10, but this kid is different. He's physically explosive. He's got great hands. He's got good size. He's got very good speed and what I really, really liked about this kid is he's got toughness. He'll physically beat press coverage. He high-points the ball. He's got a little attitude about him.
"He blocks people. You can see him getting pissed off during games and going after corners and safeties and linebackers. So he's got an attitude like he wants to be the best player there is. When you combine that with his physical ability, I think it's awesome."
Whether it's Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans' blend of size and speed, elusive Southern California wide receiver Marqise Lee or Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Ravens could be presented with some intriguing choices as they try to obtain someone to complement wide receiver Torrey Smith.
"This is the best wide receiver draft I've seen in years," Mayock said. "Watkins will be long gone, and then you start to get into what flavor do you like? Marqise Lee is a completely different receiver than Mike Evans or Kelvin Benjamin. I really believe when the Ravens get on the clock that probably one, if not two of them will be available. They bring different things to the table."
Former NFL scout Russ Lande said the Ravens would do better to be patient about addressing the receiver position, perhaps drafting an offensive tackle such as Michigan standout Taylor Lewan.
Both of the Ravens' starting offensive tackles from last season — left tackle Eugene Monroe and right tackle Michael Oher — are pending unrestricted free agents. The Ravens are in preliminary talks with Monroe and hoping to hold on to him after trading their fourth-round and fifth-round draft picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for him.
"The Ravens have so many needs," Lande said. "I think Lewan could be there and he's a solid guy, very technically sound, very competitive kid, very aggressive. I think that would be better for them than going for Evans, who's a good player. I have concerns about his ability to get separation. If it comes down to which wide receiver to take, I would pick Lee over him."
The Ravens have been linked to North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in several mock drafts, but Mayock said he would be surprised if Ebron were still available at that stage of the first round.
"If he was, I would jump all over that," said Mayock, also mentioning Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as a possibility.
Under most draft projections, Lewan and offensive tackles Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) and Greg Robinson (Auburn) won't be available to the Ravens.
Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin impressed him at the Senior Bowl. Martin could wind up playing offensive guard in the NFL. Mayock compared him to Ravens Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda, a converted tackle, because of his positional flexibility.
"The reason I like Zack Martin is because he can play all those positions, and Baltimore has got a player that's playing guard for them now, and they have done pretty darned well with him," Mayock said. "I think he makes a lot of sense. When you're sitting there at [No. 17] in this year's draft, I really believe somebody, it could be the third tackle, it could be the second wide receiver or the third wide receiver, there's going to be somebody that gets to them where you go, 'Wow, it's a great football player.'"