Draft gives the Ravens more ways to boost their offense

Since the Ravens have spent much of the offseason in a wide-ranging attempt to upgrade an uneven offense, it might seem logical to assume that they will shift the emphasis to the other side of the ball when this year's NFL draft begins Thursday night.

The team needs help in key defensive areas, to be sure, but the front office should continue to focus on building an elite offense around Joe Flacco if the Ravens really want to bounce off last season's .500 record and contend immediately for another Super Bowl title.

It's hard to argue with what they've done so far in a multilevel attack on mediocrity that includes key acquisitions, important retentions and an overhaul of the offensive brain trust.

Ozzie Newsome and his staff obviously heard owner Steve Bisciotti loud and clear when he let everyone know he would tolerate one so-so season, but might not be so forgiving of another. The result has been a series of moves aimed at improving Flacco's pocket protection and giving him plenty of targets downfield.

The Ravens re-signed tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe to five-year contracts and locked up receiver Jacoby Jones with a four-year deal. They signed free-agent receiver Steve Smith and veteran tight end Owen Daniels and acquired veteran center Jeremy Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There's little question the Ravens will be a different offensive team next season, since they brought in former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to take over as offensive coordinator when Jim Caldwell left to accept the head coaching job with the Detroit Lions. Kubiak is one of the most respected offensive minds in the game, and he clearly has a mandate to make over the Ravens attack in a way that will put it more on par with the elite offensive teams that stand in the way of another Lombardi Trophy.

The only problem is, he — and Flacco — still need more help.

There is a clear need for quality depth at running back with Ray Rice still facing a possible suspension as a result of his domestic assault case and backup Bernard Pierce coming off shoulder surgery.

Even without those unfortunate variables, the Ravens probably would be in the market for one more run threat since — in the space of one season — Rice went from being one of the NFL's best all-purpose backs to a per-game rushing average last year (44 yards) that ranked 32nd in the league.

It appears they will look for someone in the later rounds, and could give local college fans a big thrill if they go for Towson star Terrance West.

Newsome definitely isn't finished with the offensive line, which lost Michael Oher to free agency. There are several mock drafts that have the Ravens picking versatile Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin in the first round, but there are higher-rated tackles on the board — specifically 6-7 Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan — who could be within range if the Ravens decide to go against form and trade up a few slots.

Though Newsome shored up the tight end position when he signed Daniels to a one-year deal, the Ravens need another long-term answer at the position and might still have a shot at North Carolina's Eric Ebron with the 17th pick. They also figure to draft a wide receiver, but probably won't get a shot at top-rated Sammy Watkins (Clemson) or Mike Evans (Texas A&M) without trading up, and they don't figure to trade up with such a strong class of college wideouts.

Of course, Newsome never wanders far from his best-player-available philosophy, so nobody who ranks among the top 20 players on his board is out of the question.

That's why some of the draft gurus have the Ravens going for Louisville safety Calvin Pryor or trading back to get him if they think he'll slip into the bottom third of the first round. That's certainly possible and would not preclude the team from making the offense an overall priority in this draft.

The song remains the same. If the Ravens want to be the last team standing next February, they need to give Flacco every tool available to turn them into a touchdown machine.

pschmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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