In a couple of our recent NFL draft stories, we quoted Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts Inc. Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns who now evaluates current NFL players and college draft prospects for ESPN.com. He and I had a long conversation about the Ravens and their draft needs two weeks ago. Instead of focusing on just a few things that I asked Williamson about, here is the transcript of our entire conversation.
MV: What are your thoughts on how the Ravens fared last season? Did they meet your expectations?
MW: It was a great year. They were a chip-shot field goal away from really doing something. It's an awful difficult way of being eliminated, of course, and we'll see how the team responds. I think they are as mentally tough to handle something like that as any team in the league. They have great veteran leadership and I am very much a believer in this coaching staff. … I know [a year ago] I certainly had some worries about the passing game, the weaponry. I think that's still there. Joe Flacco had some very good games. It's a bit of a predicament in that he's not bad enough for them to be aggressive and get another quarterback but he hasn't shown to me that he is good enough to be a big-time guy, either. But there's certainly a lot of ability there. It's easy to forget that he came out of Delaware. That's a big transition for a guy. As long as he gradually improves, eventually he can get there. Clearly the tools are there and that separates him from many other prospects around the league.
MV: Flacco appeared to be more comfortable in the shotgun than under center. Do you see the same thing watching him play?
MW: Yes, and I think an aspect of his development and the offense in general is that I really don't think Cam Cameron and the offensive coaching staff have done him a lot of favors. They haven't put him in comfort zones time after time. Cam Cameron is not stupid. He spends a lot more time with Joe Flacco than I do, so maybe Joe's just not ready for things. But when you look at their offense, it's quite predictable. They don't do a lot to set him up to get receivers open. I think the receivers in general are a little bit of a weakness. [Anquan] Boldin is a good player, but he doesn't separate that well. He's not all that fast. And Torrey Smith is sort of a one-trick pony. But to get back to your original question I do think Flacco is most comfortable in the shotgun.
MV: The Ravens re-signed Lardarius Webb and Jameel McClain. What is your evaluation of those two players?
I really like Webb. He had a great year. Tough guy. Fits their system really well. Probably his best time is ahead of him. That was a great signing. I actually thought some team might sniff around. He and [Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver] Mike Wallace are the two restricted free agents that I thought somebody out there might consider giving up a first-round pick for. I do think Webb is a top-10 corner right now and it might be going up with him. … McClain, he's fine. I think he's a starting-caliber inside linebacker. I don't think he's special. I don't think he'll take over for Ray Lewis anytime soon, make anyone forget about Ray Lewis anytime soon. But certainly getting him back is a good move. The biggest key with that is now you don't have to reach for an inside linebacker on draft day.
MV: You mentioned Ray Lewis. It's a question every spring, but what are the chances of finding replacements for Ray and Ed Reed? And is it a deep draft for linebackers and safeties?
MW: It's a really weak safety class. The only real high-end guy is [Alabama'sMark] Barron. He's not like an Reed, centerfielder type of player. It does worry me that Lewis and/or Reed could fall off a cliff sooner or later or consistently be injured. … It worries that we're going to see less and less of them on the field. I hope that's not the case, but you never know. It inevitably happens to all players. You're not going to replace those guys. To think that you're going to find the next Ed Reed or the next Ray Lewis, they're Hall of Famers. You're not going to get those guys, and you're certainly not going to get them at the 29th pick. Those type of prospects, they're going in the top 10. … It worries me that they're not that deep at safety and not that deep at linebacker, and there aren't that many prospects out there to really get better at those positions, either.
MV: How tough it will be to replace Ben Grubbs, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency?
MW: I think you really need to address the whole offensive line. That, to me, is their biggest weakness right now. I think Michael Oher has been a little bit disappointing. He's certainly better at right tackle than he is at left tackle, but he's not one of the best right tackles in the league. He's fine. I don't think you do anything to replace him. I think [Marshal] Yanda is as good of a right guard as you're going to find in this league. He's a stud. All's well there. I still think [Matt] Birk can give you another solid season, but you have to be worried about his age. I think a replacement needs to be considered ASAP. Peter Konz out of Wisconsin would be a great Ravens first pick because he could probably come in at left guard, which I think is the weakest spot on the line. I don't think Jah Reid is the answer; he's a tackle. A guy like Konz could be your starter at guard and maybe he takes over at center full time. I'm not a fan at all of Bryant McKinnie, either. I think he had a couple games here and there that were good, but he's really hard to count on. Inconsistent. Questionable work ethic. So to me, they pretty much need two starters and maybe long-term they need three."
MV: In a recent article, you listed the Ravens as one of a few teams that need to have a strong draft…
MW: There are lofty standards there. Much like Pittsburgh, it wasn't a really kind offseason to them. … The division is difficult. Cincinnati has two first-round picks and they brought back a lot of their own talent. It's not going to be easy for the Ravens to maintain the status that they're at and they can't afford to miss on a pick or two because they have plenty of needs, including some smaller ones, too. They need to find a legit backup to Ray Rice. They certainly need a receiver but that might be a luxury they can't afford. Maybe they need three starting offensive linemen in the next year or two -- that's hard to come up with. And we talked about the defense. They need a safety. They need another pass rusher opposite [linebacker Terrell] Suggs. They have a pretty long laundry list, but if anyone's going to pull it off, I trust [Ravens G.M.] Ozzie Newsome to do so.
MV: Is it a deep offensive line class this year? Will there be solid prospects in the later rounds?
MW: Yeah, I think they can certainly find a starting-caliber guard in the second or third round. I'm not really high on the center class in general, so I think Konz should be a key target for them because of his versatility and his ability to play center for them in the future. At tackle, I think they could do OK there. … One thing that's nice about [their situation] is that finding two interior offensive linemen won't cost you an arm and a leg.
MV: What about the wide receiver class?
MW: One guy I really like for them is LSU's Rueben Randle. He's kind of a do-it-all guy with a lot of ability. He had really poor quarterback play at LSU, a Stone Age type offense. I think he's a much better pro than he is collegian. If you look at the draft, I think it's a really deep wideout draft. They could do well to find one. There's a plethora of slot-type guys -- quick guys with speed -- and that would certainly be a nice complement to Smith on the outside and Boldin. I think they can do well in the second or third rounds at that position, too.
MV: You talked about finding someone to pair with Suggs. Down the stretch last season, teams were able to neutralize Suggs and no one else really stepped up. What type of player do they need to target?
MW: They need that edge guy. Losing Jarret Johnson isn't going to kill you there, though he is a good player. They need Sergio Kindle, really. They drafted that guy two years ago but for a multitude of reasons he hasn't been able to help. If they had a really speedy player there opposite of Suggs, that would go a long way. You kind of touched on it, that's a lot of pressure to put on Terrell Suggs. As great as he is, if he has an off day or is consistently getting doubled, somebody else has to step up in that situation. They don't really have that guy.