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Preston: Ravens need another strong draft class to close talent gap with NFL's elite

Much of the Ravens front office and coaching staff spent last week at the Senior Bowl, and a second strong draft class in a row would help close the gap between the Ravens and top teams in the NFL.

The Ravens ended 2018 having three rookies start regularly on offense: quarterback Lamar Jackson, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and running back Gus Edwards. They also got solid contributions from rookie tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst.

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The Ravens finished the regular season with a 10-6 record and won the AFC North title. But there weren’t any indications that they were serious title contenders.

Actually they were the best of the average teams in the NFL, and might not have won the division if the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn’t collapsed in the final stretch of the season. The Ravens still have a lot of needs and hopefully found solutions to problem areas at the Senior Bowl.

“We have priorities,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t think they’re that hard to figure out. We need to get better everywhere so we won’t be turning down the opportunity to get to improve at every position.“

Two years ago in the annual draft, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome selected mostly defensive talent and last year he stayed on the offensive side. Newsome has been replaced by Eric DeCosta, but the old mantra of “best player available” will probably be emphasized again.

As of now, before free agency begins, the Ravens’ top needs appear to be on offense, especially since the team has announced Jackson is their quarterback of the future.

“We’re building the offense from the ground up,” Harbaugh said. “We built the defense from the ground up last year, we’re going to build special teams and we’re going to build the offense from the ground up this year. That’s what’s kind of exciting, and we’ll see what comes of it.”

A wide receiver is a top priority. For years the Ravens have brought in a lot of free agents on the downside of their careers, such as Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and Michael Crabtree. They also had a 2015 first-round bust with Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman.

Now, it’s time to take make that move again. It’s a gamble for this organization because the Ravens have failed repeatedly when drafting receivers in the first round. But if they are going to commit to Jackson, they have to find him a top playmaker.

If not, the Ravens are making the same mistake they made with Joe Flacco, who played without an impact receiver for most of his 11-year career in Baltimore.

The second-most pressing need is finding a guard or center. The Ravens were able to hide some of their weaknesses with the running game in the second half of the season. But the lack of speed and athleticism were on display in the AFC wild-card playoff game, when they had to pass but couldn’t keep up with the Los Angeles Chargers’ speed rushers.

The Ravens have some priorities on defense as well. They need a versatile, athletic safety that can cover deep on passing situations. The Ravens didn’t have one this past year, especially a safety that could close when opponents ran crossing routes. If a safety is available in the first round, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens select one.

The Ravens also need to find a pass-rushing outside linebacker. They thought Tyus Bowser or Tim Williams would become that specialized player, but neither showed that type of potential in 2018, each one’s second year in the league.

Getting a rush linebacker becomes more of a priority because the Ravens got little in the second half of the season from Terrell Suggs, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Za’Darius Smith, who had 8½ sacks this past season, is also headed for free agency.

It’s also a wait-and-see approach with star middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who’s also an unrestricted free agent. He led the team in tackles with 105 this past season and he’ll command a lucrative contract in free agency.

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The loss of Mosley would leave a huge hole in the defense. Regardless, DeCosta is likely to draft some linebackers and cornerbacks in the mid- to-late rounds if nothing more than to add to special teams.

It will also be interesting to see what the Ravens do at quarterback and running back. In the running game, they need a speedster who can also double as a receiver coming out of the backfield on passing situations.

The Ravens have two solid, straight-ahead runners in Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, but neither is a breakaway threat. That job belonged to Jackson this past season.

But it’s unlikely the Ravens will risk using him as much as a ball carrier in 2019. They also have to find a backup for Jackson. The team is likely to trade Flacco soon, if possible, and Robert Griffin III will become a free agent who can challenge for a starting position with several teams.

Will the Ravens take a quarterback in the later rounds or sign a veteran through free agency? If they draft a quarterback, will he be in the mold of Jackson?

“I would probably lean toward the backup being similar to Lamar. That’s what I hope we would be able to do,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, RG3 is a great option there. There are others out there like that who can do those things.”

Hopefully the Ravens found some answers to those questions and a lot of others last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

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