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Ravens have eye on playmaker in first round

As the Ravens enter unfamiliar territory — conducting a draft before free agency because of the lockout — team officials were asked if they were in agreement over the Ravens' biggest area of need.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh glanced at general manager Ozzie Newsome, who then looked at director of player personnel Eric DeCosta and scouting director Joe Hortiz.

"We can't agree on who should answer that question," Harbaugh said with a smile at Tuesday's pre-draft luncheon.

While Harbaugh was joking, the Ravens have a clear vision on who they'll be taking with the 26th overall pick next week — a playmaker.

Last season, the Ravens gave up a lead in the fourth quarter nine times, losing four of them. They were outscored 119-80 in the fourth quarter, allowing their most points in that quarter since 1996.

The difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers winning home-field advantage in the playoffs was Troy Polamalu's sack of Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter. The difference between the Ravens and Steelers advancing to the AFC championship game was a 58-yard catch by Antonio Brown on third-and-19 in the fourth quarter.

So, when the Ravens make their first-round selection a week from Thursday, the Ravens will want to fill a need at a position but also a void in the final quarter.

"Playmakers, to me, are guys that can finish off games," DeCosta said. "It's a guy that makes a critical play when that play needs to be made. They come in all different shapes and sizes."

DeCosta pointed out that a playmaker can be a pass rusher who makes a big sack, a receiver who makes a clutch catch or even an offensive lineman who pancakes a defensive end three times on the last series of a game.

"When you think of a playmaker in football, you're thinking maybe running back, receiver or maybe a corner," he said. "In my mind, it's a guy who makes a critical, clutch play to help you win the game."

Playmakers who have been linked to the Ravens in the first round include: Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith, Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson, UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod, Arizona outside linebacker Brooks Reed and Miami cornerback Brandon Harris.

But there's more uncertainty in this draft beyond which player will be available in the bottom third of the first round. For the first time since 1988 — when Newsome was a player — the draft will occur without free agency coming before it.

"What does that mean?" Newsome asked. "I don't know."

Newsome typically fills the Ravens' holes in free agency, which allows the team to select the best player available in the draft. Last year, he addressed the Ravens' need at wide receiver on the first day of free agency when he traded for Anquan Boldin.

The month-long NFL lockout has prevented teams from retaining their own players, making trades or signing free agents.

"It was good to have Anquan on board before we drafted last year," Newsome said. "That takes some pressure off of us trying to get a receiver. But I still think at the end of the day, what we try to do is look at our board and try to get players to come into Baltimore that are going to be able to contribute early and then be here for a long time."

Some predict that the lack of free agency will cause teams to reach to fill needs instead of taking the most talented player remaining on the board. DeCosta said the Ravens won't be affected.

"We probably have more needs than non-needs, which makes the drafting decision easy," he said. "If you need everything, you can draft anything. If you really go through and jot down what we don't need, it will be a small list. We have the flexibility to draft the best player."

The Ravens' top needs are a pass rusher, cornerback, wide receiver and offensive tackle. They could also be looking for a backup quarterback, fullback, big-bodied running back, young center, inside linebacker and safety.

There was only one position that Newsome acknowledged the Ravens would address in this draft.

"It's a very good board for receivers this year," said Newsome, whose top three receivers are currently Boldin, Derrick Mason and David Reed. "I do foresee, unless something changes, of those nine picks we have, probably one of them will be a receiver."

Of course, the immediate impact of this draft could be affected by the labor battle.

If the lockout continues deep into the summer, minicamps would be eliminated, training camps would be shortened and the learning curve for all rookies would be steep.

"If it gets to that point, it's going to be harder to get rookies on the field. There's no question about it," Harbaugh said. "I think everybody is going to have the same problem. But it would make it more difficult. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out. I still have my fingers crossed."

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