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OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' roster remains under construction, a process that grew more difficult during free agency due to a tight salary cap situation and other teams coveting the AFC North champions' free agents.

The Ravens are still dealing with the departures of Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs, veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding, but managed to retain two starters in center Matt Birk and inside linebacker Jameel McClain.

So, there isn't a significant amount of difference between where the Ravens stand today in terms of needs heading into the NFL draft at the end of this month and where they were a month ago at the launch of free agency.

The Ravens are still searching for a viable replacement for Grubbs at left guard, a long-term alternative to Birk, a 35-year-old six-time Pro Bowl selection, could use a sizable wide receiver to complement Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin and would like to continue to bolster their pass rush.

And a convincing argument could also be made for seeking potential, eventual successors to middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed.

With that many potential areas to address, the Ravens' draft strategy is shaping up as a multi-pronged approach for their 29th overall pick of the first round and their current total of eight selections.

"I try to come up with a theme every year before the draft," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said during a draft press conference at team headquarters. "My theme this year is deep depth. It sort of goes back to Branch Rickey, quality out of quantity, a lot of picks just to get as many players as you can.

"I think we need a lot of good young players. Last year, we thought we needed playmakers and we brought in Torrey Smith, we brought in Jimmy Smith. We got some guys like that. My philosophy with the draft is we want as many picks as we can get."

With the Ravens, trades are always a legitimate scenario.

They have maneuvered in the past to acquire quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive tackle Michael Oher, or traded back to acquire extra selections. They traded out of the first round two years ago, winding up with outside linebacker Sergio Kindle, starting nose guard Terence Cody and starting tight end Ed Dickson.

"You guys will say we're going to trade back," DeCosta said. "That doesn't mean that, but we want as many picks as we can get because I think the draft is all about luck. The more picks you have, the better chance you have to get lucky. We need players at every position across the board. The more picks we have, the better chance we have to hit on a few guys. That's really where we are with that."

The Ravens acquired Oher with the 23rd overall selection three years ago by moving up in a trade with the New England Patriots.

The Ravens traded their first-round pick two years ago to obtain three picks from the Denver Broncos, who famously drafted Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

A year ago, the Ravens moved up in the third round by sending two selections to the Philadelphia Eagles to get offensive lineman Jah Reid. At the moment, Reid is first on the depth chart at left guard.

"We make calls to teams ahead of us and behind us to alert them that we have the potential to move," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "At 29, I think the best way to start off is you have to have 29 players because you can't control the other 28. If you're on the clock and 28 players have been taken, you have to be ready to take that 29th if the phone call doesn't come."

Should the Ravens stand pat in the first round, they could have some intriguing options available to them.

The most likely scenario would be drafting an offensive linemen such as Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler and University of Georgia offensive tackle-guard Cordy Glenn.

The Ravens met with talented Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams at the NFL scouting combine, but he has some character issues and isn't regarded as having a strong work ethic.

The Ravens have Oher at right tackle, but left tackle Bryant McKinnie is heading into the final year of his contract and has had issues with his conditioning and run blocking.

The consensus best offensive guard, Stanford standout David DeCastro, is expected to go in the first half of the first round.

"I don't think much has changed from the end of the season," Newsome said. "We need to add some players on the offensive line."

The top wide receivers expected to be available when the Ravens are picking are big LSU standout Rueben Randle and athletic, albeit raw Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech. Hill was the star of the combine with his 4.36 speed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds.

He's mostly graded as an early second-rounder, but would be an attractive target if the Ravens traded back.

"He's an explosive guy who played in that triple-option offense and really jumped off the film in terms of vertical speed," director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "He's raw like a lot of guys are who have come out of that offense like Demaryius Thomas. Their route polish isn't quite there, but his athletic traits are really outstanding and exceptional, rare for the position."

The best pass rushers like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and South Carolina's Melvin Ingram are likely to be off the board by the time the Ravens pick.

USC defensive end Nick Perry is more of a 4-3 style player, but could be converted to outside linebacker because of his 4.5 speed.

"It's pretty good," said Hortiz, speaking generally about the class of pass rushers. "If you look at the defensive end and the rush 'backer position, it's pretty full."

It's regarded as unlikely that versatile Alabama middle linebacker Donta' Hightower, who reminds many draft analysts of Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, will last until the end of the first round.

If he's around, Hightower could fit in at several front seven positions for Baltimore and could eventually be groomed to take over for Lewis.

"Hightower is a great player, there's no doubt about it," DeCosta said. "He's an explosive guy. We've seen him play many times, obviously with the Alabama connections. We are going draft the best player that's available. If that's an inside linebacker and we think that guy can be a really good player for us, we're going to take him."

Reed has already declared that he's going to play this season and perhaps more as he enters the final year of a six-year, $44 million contract. However, he'll turn 34 at the start of next season and has battled a painful nerve impingement in his neck for the past few seasons.

Plus, the Ravens only have strong safety Bernard Pollard under contract for this year.

Alabama safety Mark Barron and Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, who met with the Ravens at the combine, are two potential first-round targets.

"Safety is like a lot of positions, we feel like we could use some depth at that position," DeCosta said. "Mark Barron is a great player. Harrison Smith is an interesting guy, too. He's a big, rangy safety who runs pretty well."

A year ago, the Ravens selected cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round and wide receiver Torrey Smith in the second round.

Smith contributed as a nickel back and Smith emerged as the deep threat the Ravens had sought for many years.

"I don't know if we manufacture our board, but Jimmy was the highest-rated player on the board when it came time for us to pick," Newsome said. "It wasn't even close. When we got to Torrey, it was the same thing. Sergio [Kindle] was a guy that we would have considered taking with the first pick.

"He was still the highest-rated guy on our board at the time. Some needs have to go into play, because we have to fulfill them. But we still, and we have said this for 16 years, we will not take need over a real good player at another position."

The Ravens will have roughly 150 players on their draft board.

Typically, their wind up making all of their picks out of their top 100.

"That doesn't always happen," DeCosta said. "Sometimes, we have to go outside of the lines. There have been a couple years where we've actually had to pull a few players up from outside our 150, but that doesn't happen very often."

Many times the Ravens have had a player they wanted simply fall to them, including Reed, Grubbs and former tight end Todd Heap.

"I don't want to give away my trade secrets," DeCosta said, "but we feel like our pick will be one of our top 20 players."

Reach staff writer Aaron Wilson at 410-857-7896 or sports@carrollcountytimes.com.

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