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Upcoming draft a critical one for Ravens

You'll never hear an NFL general manager describe an NFL draft that doesn't carry with it some level of importance.

For every team, each draft serves its own purpose. Each has its own story lines. And each draft provides a means for a team to address some of its primary areas of concern.

For the Baltimore Ravens - even without any glaring deficiencies, and even with several core players already in place - what they do Thursday through Saturday in this year's draft will go a long way toward them continuing to lay the groundwork for the future of their franchise, especially on defense.

"I would say it's important," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of this year's draft. "It's very important. I'm sure we could sit up here and say that every single year, but to me, this year, it seems like the most important draft, maybe because it's this year and it's the one we're looking at. With the transition and some of the guys that we're talking about that aren't here and the transition of our football team, it's going to be very important.

"It's going to be important to get the right guys. We're working hard at it, and I am really excited about it. ... [And] to me, we've got a good foundation, a good basis for having a great draft because of the work [the scouts] have done."

Offensively, several core players are already in place.

Quarterback Joe Flacco signed a long-term contract. There's Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce at running back, Torrey Smith at wide receiver, Dennis Pitta at tight end and some talented young players like Kelechi Osemele on the offensive line.

There are still areas on the offense that need to be addressed - notably wide receiver and left tackle - but the Ravens may focus largely on their defense in this year's draft.

Yes, they added a Pro Bowl pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil to replace Paul Kruger. Yes, they found a replacement for Ed Reed in Michael Huff. Yes, they improved their defensive line - a problem area last season - with the additions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. And yes, the signing of Rolando McClain makes the hole at inside linebacker a little bit less glaring.

But there are still areas to address.

At nose tackle, former second-rounder Terrence Cody struggled mightily last season and is entering the final season of his rookie contract. At inside linebacker, yes, the addition of McClain helps, and yes, he's still just 23 with considerable upside, but he's also a player who's had a concerning amount of issues off the field. And as far as on the field, McClain is a respected presence against the run, but he's also enough of a liability in pass coverage that, combined with other issues, led to him losing his starting job with the Oakland Raiders last season. And aside from McClain, the other players at the position consist of Jameel McClain, a solid but unspectacular veteran still recovering from a spinal cord injury that ended his season last year, Albert McClellan, a former college defensive end who's played primarily outside linebacker in the NFL, and Josh Bynes, a former undrafted free agent who began last season on Baltimore's practice squad.

The Ravens are also expected to add a strong safety to compete for a starting job with veteran James Ihedigbo, and the team could also use more depth at outside linebacker behind Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw.

"To say we aren't going to take the best player, that would be wrong," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "But like at the outset, they talked about us taking some interior defensive linemen. We could do that. Could we take some inside linebackers? We could do that. Could we take some safeties? We could do that.

"We won't pass up a good corner. You don't ever have enough good corners. You don't ever have enough good pass rushers. So, could we come away and say out of the 12 picks - if we use all of them - seven or eight could probably be on defense? Yes. But, they will be the best players at the time we pick them."

But Baltimore does have those aforementioned needs on offense as well, with wide receiver being the one that sticks out the most.

Smith is entrenched as a starter on one side, but the Ravens have a question mark on the other after parting ways with veteran Anquan Boldin earlier in the offseason.

Jacoby Jones is a big-play threat who had 406 yards and a touchdown last season, but he's also a player who's never posted more than 562 yards in his six NFL seasons and is considered by most to be better suited for a situational-type role.

And while the team has expressed confidence in young receivers like 2011 fourth-round pick Tandon Doss, 2010 fifth-rounder David Reed and second-year player Deonte Thompson, all three have seen just minimal playing time to this point.

Baltimore also has a shaky situation at left tackle, as the team has not re-signed free agent Bryant McKinnie and appears likely to turn to to second-year player Kelechi Osemele, who most consider better suited for left guard or right tackle, to take over the position.

Fortunately for the Ravens, this year's draft stacks up at well at their positions of need.

Manti Te'o (Notre Dame), Kevin Minter (LSU) and Alec Ogletree (Georgia) are all considered legitimate first-round talents at inside linebacker if available, although all three may already be off the board by the time Baltimore is on the clock with the 32nd pick in the first round. And they are all gone, Jon Bostic (Florida), Arthur Brown or Kiko Alonso (Oregon) are viable options who could still be on the board when the Ravens pick during the latter part of the second round.

Kevin Reddick (North Carolina), Nico Johnson (Alabama), Keith Pough (Howard) and Vince Williams (Florida State) are also intriguing potential options at inside linebacker who are projected more as mid-to-late round picks.

As far as safety, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock described this year's crop of safeties as one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory.

Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Jonathan Cyprien (FIU) and Matt Elam (Florida) are all likely first-round picks, but they're just three of the 12 safeties expected to be selected during the first rounds, according to CBSSports.com.

As for nose tackles, Ravens assistant general Eric DeCosta praised both John Jenkins (Georgia) and Jonathan Hankins (Ohio St.) at Baltimore's pre-draft luncheon earlier this week. Jenkins and Hankins are both projected as likely second-round picks. Jesse Williams (Alabama), another projected second-round pick, has also been mentioned by some pundits as a potential fit for Baltimore.

As far as wide receiver, Keenan Allen (California), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson) and Robert Woods (USC) are part of another deep and talent-filled group that has several players, including those three projected first-rounders, who many see as fits for the Ravens in the first few rounds.

"I think numbers-wise, we see an extra round, basically, and about 32 or 35 extra players that we think are draftable players in this draft, so the pool of players is greater," DeCosta said. "I think the quality of player between [picks] 15 and 45 is excellent. I think there are players in every round that we like, slotted very well. Defensively, it's a very, very strong draft and offensively, [it's] pretty good, too."

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