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Joe Flacco has given Ravens stability at quarterback, flexibility in NFL draft

The Ravens' quest for a franchise quarterback finally ended seven years ago.

On April 26, 2008, in what would prove to be a landmark day in franchise history, the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco with the 18th overall pick after a pair of trades in the first round. Steady, strong-armed and durable, he has given the Ravens rare stability at football's most important position, never having missed a start while piling up a franchise-record 25,531 passing yards and 148 touchdowns. Flacco was rewarded with a $120.6 million contract months after being named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLVII two years ago.

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After enduring years of mediocrity and uncertainty under center, the Ravens approach yet another NFL draft without quarterback concerns. In the NFL, that security is uncommon. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and New York Jets, who hold four of the top six draft slots in this year's first round, are among several teams that face questions about their 2015 signal caller.

While other teams contemplate the risk of taking talented but troubled Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston or explore trade scenarios to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Flacco's presence offers Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome the flexibility to address other needs.

"If you have those cornerstone positions and you're comfortable with the guys that you have there and are under contract, it gives you the ability to go into the draft and take the best player that pops up on the board for you," said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, a former general manager for the Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills. "Of course, Ozzie and company have been tremendous at doing that anyway. They really never reach for need, so it gives you that opportunity."

Before landing Flacco in 2008, the Ravens had long struggled to find a capable quarterback.

In 2003, they traded their second-round pick and their 2004 first-round selection to the New England Patriots. With the 19th overall pick, the Ravens took strong-armed, mobile Cal quarterback Kyle Boller.

The choice proved disastrous, as Boller went 20-22 in five seasons as a starter for the Ravens.

"It's hard to win in this league without a quarterback, and we were able to do it through the first Super Bowl because of [journeymen quarterbacks] Tony [Banks] and Trent [Dilfer]. But it's hard," Newsome said during a predraft news conference. "It's probably at least a quarter, maybe half, of the league that's looking for a quarterback right now to help their franchise.

"We got fortunate in Joe. Joe continues to get better, Joe continues to mature. So I'm glad to have Joe Flacco as a part of our organization as our quarterback. But it's a position that's hard to win [with] in this league when you don't have one."

The consequences of a poor pick can be far-reaching. The Patriots used the first-round pick they acquired to select nose tackle Vince Wilfork in 2004. A five-time Pro Bowl selection who signed a free-agent contract with the Houston Texans this offseason, Wilfork is nearing the start of his 12th season in the NFL.

Boller passed for 8,931 yards, 48 touchdowns and 54 interceptions in his career, recording a 69.5 passer rating before retiring in 2012.

"When you go into the draft, you want to take the best available athlete, but teams seldom truly do that," said Greg Gabriel, a former Chicago Bears and New York Giants director of college scouting. "Teams subconsciously rate players at positions of need higher than other spots. When you don't have a quarterback, you do things that are out of character to your drafting philosophy. When you've got a quarterback like Flacco, you're just looking to surround that main piece of the puzzle with good complementary pieces."

Five years after taking Boller, the Ravens, holding the eighth overall pick, ended up with Flacco only after learning how difficult it would be to jump ahead of the Atlanta Falcons and draft Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. The St. Louis Rams, drafting one slot ahead of the Falcons, wanted the Ravens' first-round picks in 2008 and 2009 and their second- and third-round selections in 2008 for the second overall pick.

The Ravens passed on the hefty price , trading back to No. 26 and then up to No. 18. The Falcons obtained Ryan, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who has gone 1-4 in the playoffs.

"We don't like giving up picks. But then there are other times. Michael Oher, we needed a tackle," said Newsome, referencing the Ravens' 2009 trade with the Patriots that allowed them to select the Mississippi offensive tackle in the first round. "To go up to get Flacco, we needed a quarterback. That's why we did it for Boller."

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Drafting 26th overall this year, the Ravens could go in any of several directions.

They could take a pass rusher such as Kentucky outside linebacker Bud Dupree or Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, who has visited the Ravens.

Gregory, who acknowledged testing positive for marijuana at the scouting combine, "could fall very far in the first round," said draft analyst Russ Lande, a former St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns scout. "Some teams are absolutely terrified of him in terms of character, but he's a legitimate top-five talent."

Last year, the Ravens stood pat at No. 17 and drafted Alabama inside linebacker C.J.Mosley, who emerged as their leading tackler and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

"For some reason, a good player tends to fall to the Ravens a lot of years, like the way it did with Mosley last year," Gabriel said. "They do a nice job stacking their board and understanding the value of players."

It's no secret the Ravens want to take advantage of a talented cornerback class headlined by Michigan State's Trae Waynes, who's widely expected to go in the top half of the first round.

More realistic targets are Washington's Marcus Peters, Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson (River Hill), LSU's Jalen Collins, and Florida State's P.J.Williams and Ronald Darby. The Ravens have had Peters, Collins and Williams in for visits and think highly of Johnson and Darby, according to sources.

"Probably, if they had their druthers, they'd like to see somebody on the defensive line pop up either at outside rusher or inside, where they lost Haloti Ngata, or in the defensive backfield," Polian said. "People are always going to say wide receiver, but the defensive players, in my opinion, are harder to come by."

Indeed, the Ravens need to bolster their wide receiver position after Torrey Smith signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason.

Among the wide receivers they could choose from late in the first round are Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, Central Florida's Breshad Perriman and Miami's Phillip Dorsett.

Oklahoma's Dorial Green-Beckham, another top prospect, has been charged twice with drug possession and allegedly pushed a woman down a flight of stairs at Missouri. He has visited the Ravens.

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Among tight ends, only Minnesota's Maxx Williams is considered a first-round prospect.

The Ravens also are expected to explore the possibility of drafting Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon or Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What the Ravens don't have to look for, though, is a quarterback.

"That gives them a lot of nice flexibility because they already have that position filled, and it helps a little because other teams will reach for quarterbacks," Lande said.

"Some teams will go crazy trying to get that one spot. If you don't have a quarterback, you have no chance to win. Having a quarterback, a team tends to panic less in the draft. That's an advantage for the Ravens."

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