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After emphasizing defense, it might be time for Ravens to draft offensive firepower

In 2013, their first NFL draft in an era without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the Ravens immediately went about rebuilding their defense, using their first four picks on that side of the ball. A year later, the Ravens took defensive players with their first three selections and four of their first five.

As they prepare for this year's draft, which gets underway with Thursday's first round, the Ravens seemingly have more needs on offense than defense. They want another running back and a tight end and they are thin on outside receiving targets for quarterback Joe Flacco. If there was a draft where the Ravens would target offense, this would seemingly be it.

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"Now might be the time to put some assets around Flacco," said former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, now an NFL analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM radio.

Of course Savage, who was a high-ranking Ravens executive from 1996 to 2004, knows that his former boss — general manager Ozzie Newsome — doesn't deviate from the philosophy of drafting the best player available. When it comes to the Ravens' first pick, that "best" player has been a defensive one in recent years.

The Ravens haven't drafted an offensive player with their first pick since taking offensive tackle Michael Oher with the 23rd overall selection in 2009. Since then, they've drafted outside linebacker Sergio Kindle (second round, 2010), cornerback Jimmy Smith (first round, 2011), outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (second round, 2012), safety Matt Elam (first round, 2013) and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (first round, 2014).

Reminded this month that the Ravens hadn't used their first pick on an offensive player since Oher, Newsome's first response was, "Since Michael Oher? Wow.

"I don't go in with any preference as to what side of the ball [we choose]," Newsome said. "Sometimes there are more needs on defense, and the board is set up that way, so we tend to stay with the board. But I don't go in with any preconceived ideas that I'm not going to draft offensive players. I'm an offensive player myself, but I do believe you win with defense."

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed a similar sentiment in a recent conference call with season ticket holders, indicating that he'd love to see Newsome use the team's first pick (26th overall) on a pass rusher, calling it the team's quietest need. He also said that the Ravens aren't "desperate" for a wide receiver, citing the expected improvement of Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken.

Is it all a smoke screen? Can the Ravens really afford to come out of Thursday's first round — or at least Friday's second and third rounds — without a target for Flacco?

The departures of wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels have left the Ravens with just two players who had more than 25 catches in the regular season last year: wide receiver Steve Smith (79 receptions) and running back Justin Forsett (44). Crockett Gillmore, who had 10 catches in his rookie season, sits atop the tight end depth chart because of the uncertainty of whether Dennis Pitta will play again after fracturing and dislocating his hip for a second time.

This draft doesn't offer much in the way of tight ends beyond Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Miami's Clive Walford, who are viewed as second-round picks, but it is loaded with receivers. When the Ravens are on the clock in the first round, they could have their choice of Central Florida's Breshad Perriman, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong and Miami's Phillip Dorsett.

But it's questionable whether they will go that route. The Ravens haven't picked a receiver in the first round since taking Mark Clayton in 2005. Torrey Smith, a second-round pick in 2011, is the only receiver that they've taken within the first three rounds over the past seven drafts.

"For so long, that team was based on Ray, Ed, Haloti [Ngata], [Terrell] Suggs. It worked really well," said John Middlekauff, a former NFL scout. "They are old school. I know Ozzie was an offensive player, but he very much believes in having a dominant defense."

It was fitting that the Ravens' first two picks in 2013, after Lewis' retirement and Reed's free agent exit, were a safety (Matt Elam) and an inside linebacker (Arthur Brown). They then grabbed defensive tackle Brandon Williams in the third round and outside linebacker John Simon in the fourth.

Last season, while most projections had them drafting an offensive tackle and a wide receiver early, the Ravens used their first three picks on inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks. They then took defensive end Brent Urban in the fourth round.

"I think that when you have the quarterback in place and there is a lack of volume for defensive players, you're more often than not going to lean toward the defensive side of the ball," Savage said. "It's an offensive-driven league, but if you are one of the fortunate teams that has a quarterback, you probably don't have to focus so much on offense. Remember, they lost Ed, they lost Ray. They lost two iconic players and they had to rebuild that defense."

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The Ravens suffered losses on both sides of the ball this offseason, though entering the draft, they seem better equipped to handle them on defense. With Jernigan, they have an in-house replacement for Ngata, who was traded to the Detroit Lions. They lost defensive end-outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, but they also reinforced their defensive line by re-signing Chris Canty and Lawrence Guy.

Safety Kendrick Lewis was signed to replace Darian Stewart, now with the Denver Broncos. The Ravens are planning to add a cornerback, but new contracts this offseason for starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb may have lessened that need.

As for the offense, Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels have yet to be replaced. Really, the only move made to bolster the starting offense was the re-signing of running back Justin Forsett, and his return won't prevent the Ravens from drafting another running back in the early-to-middle rounds.

"With so many good wide receivers and running backs available, they may not be compelled as much to draft defense," Savage said. "If it is defense, it has to be a difference maker. I don't think it would be a safety again. I don't think it will be an outside backer, of course. A pass rusher or corner would make some sense. But they definitely could use some more firepower on offense."

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