Reporter Aaron Wilson talks about the Ravens preparing for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens have several roster decisions to contemplate and NFL draft prospects to consider as the scouting combine begins Wednesday.
With the draft still months away, the Ravens' greatest needs are in the secondary, where injuries to Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb last season exposed the team's lack of cornerback depth and safeties rarely made big plays.
The Ravens could use reinforcements at wide receiver, outside linebacker and running back, but those situations hinge on their free agents and how the front office resolves a tight salary-cap situation.
The Ravens will attempt to create more salary-cap space before free agency begins on March 10 by attemping to restructure contracts for defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ($16 million cap figure, $8.5 million base salary) and Webb ($12 million cap figure, $8 million base salary). Without more financial flexibility, it will be difficult to retain those players and those eligible for free agency.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, 36, is expected back for the second season of a three-year, $11 million contract. Torrey Smith is a pending unrestricted free agent and no new deal is imminent for the former Maryland standout, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
That kind of uncertainty could potentially affect the Ravens' thinking, even though they traditionally draft the best player avaiable, regardless of position.
"If you were just to kind of put a gun to my head right now, I'd say wide receiver makes the most sense," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call. "I think it will be a deep enough draft to get a good football player in the first round or second round. The wide receiver thing is interesting. Because Torrey Smith is a free agent and Steve Smith is 36 years old, there are a couple of unknowns there.
"Wide receiver at least has to be in your mind, especially because it's a good wide receiver class. Whenever you get a chance to get a special skilled position player, you've got to be looking at it."
The Ravens haven't drafted a wide receiver in the first round in a decade, when they picked Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Clayton with the 22nd overall selection. Clayton didn't live up to expectations, though, and was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 2010 for a seventh-round draft pick.
Most draft analysts project West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker to be gone by the Ravens' 26th overall selection in the first round.
One wide receiver consistently linked to the Ravens, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, is 6 feet 3, 212 pounds and caught 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Strong probably needs to run a fast 40-yard dash, though, to justify selecting him in the first round.
"He has the physical traits, height, weight, speed of Larry Fitzgerald, when he came out of the University of Pittsburgh," Mayock said. "That doesn't mean he's anywhere close to him from a technique perspective. He's really raw, but he's strong, very strong hands, big body.
"What he runs this week is going to be important. There's a huge difference between him running 4.6 and 4.5 [seconds]. I'm rooting for the kid because I like his game."
Michigan hybrid wide receiver-tight end Devin Funchess has also been mentioned as a potential target for the Ravens. Funchess is 6-5, 230 pounds and made several contested catches last season for the Wolverines as he finished with 62 catches for 733 yards and four touchdowns.
"He's not even 21 years old yet; he's going to continue to grow," Mayock said. "I think he's got better movement skills than [Carolina Panthers wide receiver] Kelvin Benjamin."
Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham has elite talent and size at 6-6, 225 pounds, but has an extremely checkered past. He was booted off the Missouri football team before transferring to Oklahoma after domestic violence allegations surfaced against him and he was investigated for burglary.
Green-Beckham hasn't played football since the 2013 season, when he caught 59 passes for 883 yards and a dozen touchdowns for Missouri. He wasn't eligible to play for Oklahoma after trying to obtain a waiver.
"Dorial Green-Beckham is as gifted as anybody in this class, but you better do your homework off the field," Mayock said.
Mayock mentioned several wide receivers as potential second-round targets, including Sammie Coates (Auburn), Devin Smith (Ohio State), Phillip Dorsett (Miami) and Breshad Perriman, a Central Florida player who's the son of former NFL wide receiver Brett Perriman.
If Webb restructures his deal and regains his old form after being plagued by back problems last season and previously tearing both anterior cruciate ligaments, and if Jimmy Smith makes a healthy return after undergoing surgery for a Lisfranc foot sprain, the Ravens' secondary could improve dramatically.
"The cornerback thing changes a little bit because they get Jimmy Smith back, if they get a healthy Lardarius Webb, then all of a sudden that corner position looks a heck of a lot better than it did a year ago," Mayock said.
The Ravens could still use an influx of talent at cornerback, though.
Mayock is high on several cornerbacks, including Jalen Collins of LSU because of his size-speed combination at 6 feet 2, 198 pounds.
"He's a press corner, not afraid to play in your face, will tackle, understands how to play the game, has some physicality about him," Mayock said of Collins. "I think he's going to be a first-round pick."
Washington cornerback Marcus Peters is expected to go in the first round. Peters might be the most talented corner in the draft, but might be downgraded because he was twice suspended for conduct, including a sideline tantrum during which he slammed his helmet to the ground.
Florida State cornerback P.J. Williams is considered a potential late first-round pick, as is Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson. Johnson played high school football with Ravens receiver Michael Campanaro at River Hill in Clarksville.
The Ravens are considered unlikely to draft a safety in the first round because Alabama safety Landon Collins is expected to be drafted ahead of their pick. There's no other pure safety regarded as first-round material, though Washington outside linebacker Shaq Thompson could project to safety.
"I would make the case they need a safety also, but it's not a great safety draft," Mayock said.
The Ravens could also search for a young pass rusher since outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will turn 33 in October and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is 31. Plus, the Ravens are considered unlikely to be able to retain outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who is one of the top defensive free agents after recording a career-high 7.5 sacks last season.
"I think wide receiver, corner, and edge rusher are all pretty important right now," Mayock said. "If they're picking No. 26, you can bet your butt that they're not going to take the 32nd guy on their board because of need. They're going to pick somebody that's a really good football player, and hopefully at a position of need."
Mayock compared University of Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton to Ngata, projecting him to be drafted within the first 10 picks. "I love him, reminds me of Haloti Ngata," Mayock said. "I think everybody sees that comparison. Powerful, better feet than you think, and I'm surprised at how many snaps he can play at a high level." ... Maryland junior wide receiver Stefon Diggs was predicted by Mayock to be, at worst, a middle-round draft pick. "Diggs is special with the football in his hands," Mayock said. "It's a shame people will question his durability and whether or not he should have come back for another year. I'm anxious to see how he runs and catches." ... Mayock praised Towson defensive end Ryan Delaire, an all-conference pass rusher who had 22.5 sacks in two seasons after transferring from Massachusetts and could project to outside linebacker in a 3-4 NFL scheme. "The guy that I'm intrigued by is Delaire," Mayock said. "I like him as a developmental edge prospect. Haven't heard much buzz about him, but I thought his tape was good. I thought he competed. I thought he's got a little twitch to him, and I'll be surprised if he's not drafted."