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Preston: Ravens are at least one or two playmakers away from contending

The Baltimore Sun

Regardless of a team’s record, the season usually comes down to about 10 plays.

If a team has playmakers, it can overcome its obstacles and get to the postseason. These are the players who can make those 10 plays.

The Ravens’ top priority this offseason is to find an offensive playmaker or two. They have other needs, but they are still in the class of the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans, teams that barely found their way into the playoffs.

The Ravens are like a lot of teams in the mediocre, watered-down NFL. But if they get some players healthy and make a strong move or two in the offseason, they could make the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Below is a priority list for the Ravens this offseason with the most pressing needs in order according to position:

Receiver: Except for the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens had possibly the worst group of receivers in the NFL. They didn’t have a possession or a go-to receiver. Fortunately, the Ravens might lose most of this group.

Mike Wallace and tight end Benjamin Watson are free agents, with Watson likely to retire. The Ravens will probably cut veteran Jeremy Maclin. That leaves Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore as the top guys. That’s not good.

So, the Ravens need to go sign a veteran wideout such as the Miami Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry or Jacksonville Jaguars’ Allen Robinson, or Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham. They also need to select a receiver or two in the early rounds of the draft. That is scary because the Ravens haven’t had much success drafting receivers but they have to make it work.

Offensive line: This group turned out be sound in 2017 and could be better with the return of right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle) and left guard Alex Lewis (shoulder). But because of the injury, Lewis really has only one year of experience and he hasn’t stayed healthy for the two years he has been with the team.

The Ravens will most likely lose center Ryan Jensen in free agency, and the team needs to upgrade at right tackle even though Austin Howard was serviceable at the position a year ago. If the Ravens want to give quarterback Joe Flacco more weapons they have to give him more time to throw.

Defensive line: The Ravens don’t need run-stoppers. They need interior pass rushers. Tackle Brandon Williams started off strong but seemed to tire at the end of the season. The same can be said for Michael Pierce, the other starting tackle.

The big problem, though, was that the Ravens couldn’t collapse pockets. A team has to have those types of players when going against quarterbacks such as the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady or Pittsburgh SteelersBen Roethlisberger, who are basic pocket passers.

If a team can shut down the passing lanes inside it has a better chance of winning. The Ravens haven’t had a top pass-rushing threat inside since Sam Adams played here in the early 2000s. Haloti Ngata was strong against the run, but wasn’t consistent getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Linebacker: The Ravens need someone on the inside who can start next to C.J. Mosley, the team’s top tackler last season. They tried various combinations last season with Patrick Onwuasor and Kamalei Correa, but the former wasn’t smart enough and the latter wasn’t athletic and physical enough to handle the weak side.

The Ravens want a hybrid-type safety/linebacker, a player who can run down plays but also cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.

They could use another pass rusher on the outside but they won’t take one in the early rounds of the draft because that would be a sign they lack confidence in second-year players Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser. The Ravens have to find a way to get more production out of veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs late in the season.

Secondary: The Ravens need to find a free safety who can play center field or drop deep into coverage. Their top two safeties, who are interchangeable at least in the scheme, are both strong or box safeties. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson support the run well but are liabilities in coverage. The safeties were exploited numerous times when they had to match up one-on-one with tight ends.

This could be Weddle’s last season so the Ravens might as well start grooming a young replacement. They seem set at cornerback because of young players Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young and Maurice Canady, but they might want to select a corner in the late rounds of the draft because starting corner Jimmy Smith is injury-prone.

Quarterback: Flacco has one, maybe two years remaining, but coach John Harbaugh, despite recent comments from owner Steve Bisciotti, will take a look at several young quarterbacks as backups and as the possible heir apparent. It makes sense because Flacco has struggled with injuries the last couple of seasons. Philadelphia proved that a team can still win with a backup as the starter. Nick Foles carried the Eagles to the Super Bowl title replacing starter Carson Wentz.

Running back: Even though the Ravens might have found their running back of the future last season in Alex Collins, they still need a breakaway threat, a scatback with power. It’s Collins’ job to lose, and he’ll get plenty of competition from Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon. Dixon, though, has to show he has recovered from knee problems and can stay out of trouble off the field.

Special teams: The Ravens have the best kicking game in the NFL.

The same can’t be said about their offensive playmakers.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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