By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
3:46 PM EST, January 8, 2014
It didn't take long for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome to rattle off a specific list of priorities atop his offseason agenda.
He's looking for a bulkier, more powerful middle of the offensive line, a play-making safety and a sure-handed receiver capable of converting third downs.
Following a disappointing 8-8 season in which the Ravens failed to make the playoffs for the first time since hiring coach John Harbaugh in 2008, Newsome is now faced with upgrading the roster.
The Ravens' offensive line, especially center Gino Gradkowski and left guard A.Q. Shipley, was frequently overmatched in terms of size against imposing defensive linemen. Shipley was forced into action after Kelechi Osemele was ruled out for the season with a bulging disk that required surgery. Between Gradkowski (6 foot 3, 300 pounds), Shipley (6-1, 309 pounds) and Pro Bowl right offensive guard Marshal Yanda (6-3, 305 pounds), it was a relatively small interior offensive line.
"We've got to get bigger in the interior of our offensive line," Newsome said Wednesday during a state-of-the-team press conference at the Ravens' training complex. "That's one of the areas that I think we need to improve on."
The Ravens essentially operated with two strong safeties this season after Michael Huff proved incapable of tackling or covering aggressively. Rookie free safety Matt Elam, a natural strong safety, took Huff's spot in the starting lineup.
Elam finished fourth on the team with 76 tackles, but intercepted just one pass and had three pass deflections in 15 starts at free safety. Strong safety James Ihedigbo is an unrestricted free agent after a strong season in which he registered 98 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Elam appears far more comfortable operating closer to the line of scrimmage as a blitzer and enforcer in run support. So, he may shift to strong safety and the Ravens may need to go find a free safety.
Without mentioning Elam's name, Newsome made it clear that the team is looking for more of an impact out of the free safety position.
"I think we need to have a more athletic safety in the defense," Newsome said.
The Ravens also struggled to replace the physical slot presence of wide receiver Anquan Boldin after trading him to the San Francisco 49ers following a contract dispute in which he refused to accept a pay cut from his $6 million base salary.
"We need to be able to get a receiver, whether it's a tight end or a wide receiver, that can make a third-and-7, third-and-8 catch and run after the catch," Newsome said.
If the Ravens can find a quick possession receiver with sure hands similar to New England Patriots wide receivers Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, it would go a long way toward improving the ability of the offense to convert third downs. The Ravens converted just 92 of 253 (36.4 percent) of their third downs last season.
"If I was to look at the three things today, and that's coming out of a full day of personnel meetings and talking with my staff, those are some areas where we will try to add some," Newsome said. "I also believe in this: You get better by getting yourself better. I have no doubt with the work that John [Harbaugh] and his staff have done in the past, we can have that. The players that we retain on this team will be better players."