As the 2010 NFL draft gets closer and the debate simmers over what the Ravens should do with their first-round pick, there are three important questions the franchise needs to ask itself as it maps out a plan:
•Just how close are we to winning a Super Bowl?
•Is there one player available at No. 25 who can get us over the hump?
•If it's more than one good player, wouldn't it be better to trade down, acquire more overall depth, and continue the slow and steady path toward improvement?
That's the juggling act Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta have in front of them right now, and you shouldn't envy them, because it's one of the toughest calls a good front office has to make - especially when it has just two picks in the first four rounds. If you're a bad team, you need help everywhere. But if you're a good team, you're trying to find the missing piece for right now without neglecting the future. At the end-of-the-season news conference addressing the state of the team, owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged that Shannon Sharpe was probably the missing piece that got the Ravens over the hump and allowed them to win the Super Bowl in January 2001.
Is that missing piece once again a tight end?
A lot of experts seem to think so based on the Ravens' needs and the fact that they've more or less acknowledged that they would have drafted Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew last year had he been available.
Let's look instead at the larger picture.
It's obvious that the Ravens' front office has been trying to address the team's inadequacies on offense in recent years. Three straight drafts, the Ravens have picked an offensive player in the first round ( Michael Oher, Joe Flacco, Ben Grubbs) and that strategy, while effective, has finally started to come home to roost on defense. It seems clear that it's time to focus some attention back to the other side of the ball.
Let's be frank for a second about the defense. The unit played well in the second half of the 2009 season, especially after Greg Mattison got more comfortable calling blitzes, but a handful of players are getting old, and it's happening quickly. Ray Lewis is still a very good player - an emotional leader and a field general - but he's a different player from the one in his prime. He's bigger, but slower. He doesn't have great lateral speed any longer to make everyone around him look better, and he's turning into a liability in pass coverage.
Injuries have robbed Ed Reed of some of his explosiveness and some of his aggressiveness. Trevor Pryce and Kelly Gregg still have something left, but they're no longer elite players at their position. The team has major concerns at cornerback because of injuries and ability. Reed could announce on the eve of training camp that he's retiring and nothing will change his mind.
The more I study it, the more I'm convinced that instead of picking a tight end early, the Ravens would be better off shopping that pick.
And for a team that prides itself on nailing its drafts, it has to be bugging the Ravens that they have only five picks in the deepest draft in a decade.
"We always consider every option," DeCosta said recently when asked whether trading down was a possibility. "We've traded up in the first round, we've traded back in the first round, and we've traded out of the first round. We talk about all these different issues and plan accordingly because you just never know what's going to happen on draft day."
There is a lot of value in the second and third rounds on defense, but also at tight end. Instead of going after a player such as Gresham, the Ravens could establish themselves as the team to beat in the AFC if they could get a second- and third-round pick for the 25th selection.
That would allow them to grab a cornerback, such as Kareem Jackson or Patrick Robinson, and a defensive lineman, such as Terrence Cody or Alex Carrington, in the second round, then target a tight end in the third - perhaps Miami's Jimmy Graham.
Graham, a former basketball player, is raw and he's not a great blocker, but the Ravens don't need a blocking tight end. Todd Heap and Chris Chester can easily handle those responsibilities. They need a big target who can get open over the middle and open the entire field for Flacco.
"I think I have the ability to stretch the field," Graham said. "I'm very fast and very big, I think my strength is catching the ball, scoring touchdowns. ... I think my ability to attack the ball in the air kind of translates from basketball. I was a physical basketball player. I mean, I fouled out almost every game."
It's usually fool's gold to believe you're just one player away from winning it all. If the Ravens can find a willing trade partner, they can still address their needs and plan for the future by moving down.
It won't be particularly exciting, but it's the move that not only would put them in position to win a second Lombardi Trophy, but also would address the future.