Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz talks about the Ravens' needs aligning with the key positions of strengths in the upcoming NFL draft. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
It took Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome less than 30 seconds into last week's annual pre-draft luncheon to say that the organization was going to draft the "best player" rather than focusing on a particular side of the ball.
That has been Newsome's hallmark and it shouldn't come as a surprise. So while the debate rages on between Ravens fans and reporters about whether a wide receiver or a pass rusher is the team's biggest need and likely target with the 16th overall pick, it could be a moot point if certain players fall in the draft and are available when the team is on the clock.
All bets are off if Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette surprisingly drops or if former Alabama teammates, middle linebacker Reuben Foster and tight end O.J. Howard, are available, or even Ohio State safety Malik Hooker. All are projected to go in the top half of the first round, so it's unlikely the Ravens will have a chance to draft any of them. But every year, one or two players surprisingly fall.
The Ravens also figure to have an opportunity to select one of the draft's top offensive linemen and one of the top three or four cornerbacks from a ridiculously talented class. Their options will be many, but one of the most likely scenarios remains the decision between a wide receiver or pass rusher.
Clemson's Mike Williams, Western Michigan's Corey Davis and Washington's John Ross, the top three receivers available, are all projected to go at some point from the middle to the latter half of the first round. Several impact edge rushers also will likely be available outside the top 10 with names such as UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, Temple's Haason Reddick, Tennessee's Derek Barnett, Michigan's Taco Charlton and Missouri's Charles Harris expected to slot somewhere in the first round.
The Ravens are going to take the player they have ranked highest on their board. However, for argument's sake, let's say they have near identical grades on a wide receiver and a pass rusher. Which direction should they go?
I gather the majority of fans want the receiver. That's the sexy position, and the quest for a young No. 1 receiver has become an obsession around these parts. Fans also see how the front office bolstered the defense this offseason with the signings of defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr, and the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams, and they wonder when the Ravens will get quarterback Joe Flacco a few more weapons as they vowed they would do.
Such sentiment is understandable, and the Ravens absolutely need to take a wide receiver at some point during the first two days of the draft. But I'm in the camp that their clear priority should be finding a pass rusher.
Only six teams had fewer than the Ravens' 31 sacks last year. Of those 31 sacks, 10 of them came from players who are no longer on the Ravens anymore. Their top interior pass rusher, Timmy Jernigan, was traded. Veteran Elvis Dumervil was released. Terrell Suggs is 34 years old and probably only has one or two seasons left. Za'Darius Smith took a significant step back last year with just one sack. Matthew Judon looks promising and had five sacks as a rookie, but he remains a work in progress.
For all the perceived improvements with the Ravens' secondary, their ability to generate a consistent pass rush is still the biggest factor in the success of the defense. The Ravens couldn't get to Tom Brady when it counted in the loss last December to the New England Patriots and they certainly couldn't touch Ben Roethlisberger in the decisive defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers later that month. Without a pass rush, defenses don't stand a chance.
The Ravens have had moderate success finding pass rushers in the later rounds, selecting Pernell McPhee in the fifth round in 2011, Smith in the fourth round in 2015 and Judon in the fifth round last year. They haven't selected a pass rusher in the first round since taking Terrell Suggs 10th overall in 2003. Now, would be a good time for that to change.
The wide receiver draft class is deep enough where the Ravens should be able to find an immediate contributor on Day 2. There are also a handful of accomplished veterans still on the free agent market -- Anquan Boldin, Michael Floyd, Victor Cruz and Vincent Jackson. Another veteran wide receiver or two will probably be released after the draft.
And despite all the fretting – and some of it is understandable – the cupboard is not entirely bare. Mike Wallace had more than 1,000 yards receiving last year. The team needs to find out what it has in Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore. Michael Campanaro brings a skill set that the Ravens haven't had. The Ravens also have six tight ends that they like and a new addition in Danny Woodhead who led all NFL running backs in receptions a couple years ago.
Flacco clearly needs more help and that should come with a drafted receiver and the possible addition of a free agent. But that help should also come with improvements on the offensive line and a bigger commitment to the running game. All those things are needed on offense.