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Preston: The key word for the Ravens heading into free agency and the draft? Balance. | COMMENTARY

A big, speedy wide receiver would be the final piece of the Ravens offense, but they have more pressing concerns on defense.

So when the annual NFL scouting combine begins this weekend in Indianapolis, the Ravens might want to spend more time interviewing and working out inside and outside linebackers than any other position.

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Local and national fans were mesmerized by the athleticism and playmaking ability of quarterback Lamar Jackson as the Ravens led the NFL in offense, averaging 33.2 points and 201.6 rushing yards per game without a top wide receiver to complement the running and play-action passing game.

But if the Ravens ignore their defensive needs, next season will end like the past two, with the Ravens getting knocked out of the playoffs after one game.

The key word heading into free agency and April’s draft is balance, especially for the defense.

Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and defensive line coach Joe Cullen should have been serious contenders for the NFL’s top assistant award, given to offensive coordinator Greg Roman earlier this month.

To get 37 sacks out of this team was impressive, considering the Ravens didn’t have a premiere pass rusher. But that deficiency, as well as the team’s inability to stop a strong rushing game with their front seven or base defense, showed up in the postseason.

That’s what has to change. That’s what the draft is for.

So unless a receiver the Ravens covet falls to them at No. 28 overall, it appears as if they will select a defensive player.

Now, will it be an outside or inside linebacker? That’s where it gets interesting.

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Some draft prognosticators have the Ravens selecting a cornerback in the first round, which would be a little strange for a team that already has Pro Bowl selections Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters as the starters and several quality backups.

It’s highly unlikely that the Ravens can get either one of the top pass rushers in the draft — Ohio State’s Chase Young or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa — unless they trade up, but they still might be able to select a good one, such as Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson or Alabama’s Terrell Lewis.

The Ravens definitely need a pass rusher. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the team’s top pass rusher last season, could become an unrestricted free agent. Fellow outside linebacker Tyus Bowser has had some impressive moments, but not enough to be counted on in 2020. The same can be said for Jaylon Ferguson, who had trouble setting the edge on running plays as a rookie.

The suggestion here is to find an inside linebacker first, someone who is tough and physical enough to shed blocks and run sideline to sideline. And please, go get someone who has that nasty, ornery attitude.

If you can’t stop the run, teams won’t need to pass. The Tennessee Titans proved that in their divisional-round upset win against the Ravens. The first rule of defense is to shut down the run first, because an opposing team can control the pace of the game with their rushing attack.

This draft has some good inside linebackers, including Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen, and one of them might be available when the Ravens pick in the first round.

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The Ravens have potentially nine picks overall (depending on compensatory selections), including one in each of the first, second and third rounds.

The Ravens also need help on both interior lines, though the weaknesses there aren’t as glaring as those at linebacker. On the defensive line, the Ravens need ends and tackles who are more versatile, not just one-dimensional.

They need players who can not only stop the run, but also pressure the quarterback. The Ravens have four defensive linemen who could be free agents this offseason, including Michael Pierce, Domata Peko Sr., Justin Ellis and Jihad Ward.

Offensively, the line had a good year, but the Ravens still need to patch some things up in the middle, especially if right guard Marshal Yanda decides to retire.

The Ravens should be able to fill some holes with their first three picks, but the fourth round will be interesting. The Ravens could have as many as four picks in that round, and a lot of interior linemen have been found in the middle rounds.

The Ravens also have to find a return specialist. They got very little from the return game in 2019, with few big plays that helped swing the field-position battle. Coach John Harbaugh even made changes in personnel, and it still didn’t work.

Overall, the Ravens appear set to make a serious run at the Super Bowl next season. They have plenty of talent on offense, but they just have to even it up a little.

Balance is a strong word in the NFL these days.

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