The NFL draft may be six months away, but it's never too early to start looking ahead at the Ravens' areas of need as well as some players they could potentially target come April.
To help do that, Times staff writer Matt Zenitz caught up with Scott Wright, the founder and president of DraftCountdown.com.
Wright has been scouting the draft since 1993 and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
QUESTION: I know at this point nose tackle, middle linebacker, safety and left tackle stick out as some of the Ravens' primary areas of need. If the season ended today, they'd be picking somewhere in the latter part of the first round. If that ends up being the case, what direction could you see them going?
SCOTT WRIGHT: Well, I definitely agree with the positions you mentioned. And I actually just put up a new mock draft [Friday] night and had the Ravens taking [middle linebacker] Arthur Brown from Kansas State.
He's kind of a poor man's Ray Lewis. He has some of the same question marks coming out of college where he's a little undersized but plays bigger and is really physical, hard-hitting and aggressive.
I think that's the biggest thing facing the Ravens now is that they're going to have to replace Ray Lewis at some point sooner rather than later and then Ed Reed before too long as well, so that's got to be a priority in the next year or two, but I definitely think inside linebacker is a strong possibility.
Manti Te'o from Notre Dame probably isn't going to be there if Baltimore's picking in that back-third of the first round, but the guy I mentioned, Arthur Brown from Kansas State, could be a possibility late in the first round or someone like Alec Ogletree out of Georgia that's an underclassman.
At safety, this is actually a really strong safety class because most of the top underclassmen at that position all went back to school. So, whereas last year safety was one of the weakest positions in the whole draft, this year it's going to be one of the strongest. A guy I think could be a possibility late in the first round in terms of seniors is T.J. McDonald from USC. He's the son of Tim McDonald that played in the NFL for a long time with the Cardinals and 49ers. He's a really good all-around player - aggressive, hard-hitting, but also really good range in coverage.
Kenny Vaccaro from Texas I think the other senior that could be in the conversation late in the first round. But then the underclassmen, you have Eric Reid from LSU and David Amerson from North Carolina State. Coming into the year, everybody thought [Amerson] was a stud cornerback prospect, but he might be more of a free safety, a center fielder. His stock has dropped to the point that maybe he's there later in the first round if he comes out.
In terms of the offensive line, I agree with you even though they've invested some resources in the draft along the line in recent years - Oher, Jah Reid was a third rounder and last year Kelechi Osemele was a second rounder. I still think they have some questions. And if they want to go with a left tackle, I think the guy that would make sense late in the first round could be Eric Fisher from Central Michigan. That's the same program that produced [49ers left tackle] Joe Staley, and they're similar types of players, both rangy, athletic, nimble feet. [They're] not necessarily dominating run blockers, but that's not what you pay left tackles for anyways.
Inside linebacker is the top priority in my mind and then it's safety and offensive line battling for No. 2.
Q: And I know those good 3-4 nose tackles always tough to find. Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu both struggling for the Ravens this year. What is there in terms of the crop of 3-4 nose tackles in next year's draft?
SW: There's some good ones out there. I think the top one is definitely John Jenkins from Georgia. He's just a 350-pound force in the middle and is similar in a lot of ways to Terrence Cody. He was a JUCO kid and played two years in the SEC. He has a chance to go in the first round. I actually have him going to the Steelers in my new mock draft.
I think Kawann Short from Purdue could play nose tackle, even though he's not considered a prototypical fit. Jesse Williams from Alabama could be there in the second or third round.
But I think John Jenkins from Georgia, especially if the Ravens want to take a nose tackle in the first round, he would be the target.
Q: I know you mentioned safety as being a position of strength in this year's draft. Where else would you say this draft is really strong in terms of a position?
SW: I think it's a good defensive line class. I really do. I think with the seniors alone you could put together a really good defensive line class. And then when you start factoring in the underclassmen, it's going to get really strong and deep, so I really like the defensive linemen.
I think it's a pretty good crop of quarterbacks as well, even if it doesn't get aided by underclassmen. We've some of the top underclassmen quarterbacks struggle this year, so it looks like they might end up going back to school. But even if you just look at the seniors, I think you could make a legitimate case that there's six or seven of them with top-100 grades, going in the top three rounds, which is pretty impressive for that position.
I would say defensive line and quarterback are what I've been most impressed with so far.
Q: Aside from [USC quarterback] Matt Barkley, who's the offensive player you see as most ready to make an immediate impact next year?
SW: Chance Warmack from Alabama. He's an offensive guard, and he's a true offensive guard, but he has a sure-fire first round grade, and that's a pretty rare thing. Guards usually aren't prioritized on draft day, but we saw Kevin Zeitler and David DeCastro last year were first round picks at that position, and Warmack is going to be as well. I actually have him going in the top-20 of my new mock. He's just a mauler in the run game and plays in a pro-style system at Alabama. And on an offensive line that may have as many as three first round picks, he might be the best.
Q: What about from a defensive standpoint? I know the defensive lineman from Utah [Star Lotulelei] gets a lot of attention. Aside from him, who's the defensive player most ready to make an impact early on?
SW: I really like Star Lotulelei from Utah. The other two guys I would consider would be [linebacker] Manti Te'o from Notre Dame and I also really like [cornerback] Johnathan Banks from Mississippi State. Teo's having an outstanding senior year. If he had come out last year, he would've been battling Luke Kuechly and Dont'a Hightower. This year, he's the clear-cut top guy at his position. He's lost a little weight, so he's showed a little better all-around game in coverage as well. But I also really like Johnathan Banks. He's not getting a lot of press clippings, and he's not a Deion Sanders or Champ Bailey or Morris Claiborne - he's not that top-5 overall pick - but I think he's going to go somewhere in the middle of the first round and he's just a really tall, rangy, fast, athletic cornerback that can make plays in the secondary.
Q: And in terms of those late round sleepers, the guys that are going under the radar - I know you hear about them every year and I'm sure you get asked a ton about them every single year - but who's somebody from an offensive standpoint that you like that's going under the radar right now?
SW: I'm going to say Nick Kasa, a tight end from Colorado, and it's an interesting story. He played defensive end up until late last season and they moved him to tight end, and he had a borderline mid-round grade as a defensive end prospect, so he's a really good athlete. I believe as of a couple weeks ago he was still leading Colorado in receiving, which is impressive considering how new he is to the position - though Colorado's a really, really bad team. But I really like Nick Kasa. I think he offers a lot of upside, particularly because the senior tight end class is really bad. I don't know if we're going to see a senior tight end go in the top three rounds, so there's room for someone with that upside to move up like Nick Kasa. We saw it last year. Taylor Thompson from SMU was a college defensive end. During the pre-draft process, they moved him to tight end and he wound up being a mid-round pick. I could see Kasa following a similar path.
Q: How about defensively? Who's someone under the radar that you like at this point?
SW: On defense, I guess I would highlight Duke Williams out of Nevada. He's a safety. He's not getting a lot of press clippings right now, but he's just a good all-around player. He's not necessarily dynamic in any one [area], but he can play the run, he's physical, he's tough and he's also rangy and can get the job done in coverage. He's very fast. He's going to run a 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash]. I would say Duke Williams is a guy I like that's not getting the attention he deserves."