For an organization that considers the NFL draft its lifeblood — which is how Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta characterized it earlier this month — there is always a sense of urgency at this time of year.
Each draft is crucial. Each opportunity to infuse a proven and playoff-tested nucleus with talent and depth is attacked with the same fervor.
So as Ravens officials prepare for this year's draft, which starts with Thursday night's first round, they maintain that it's business as usual. But with several holes on their roster, very little salary cap space to address them and aging veterans at key positions, a case certainly could be made that this is one of the more important drafts in franchise history.
Though they were just seconds away from making the Super Bowl, reinforcements are clearly needed.
"We're just trying to get better," DeCosta said. "We look at the team as clinically as we can and try to address what we think are the most important issues on the team. That's what the draft is about, that's what free agency is about. We're just trying to improve so that next year when we're in that same position, we'll win the game."
The Ravens have eight total picks, including the 29th overall Thursday. They will have at least one selection in every round and two in the fifth, and there is certainly no shortage of positions to address.
The Ravens badly need to bolster their offensive line, which lost Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs and is without long-term answers at left tackle and center. They also covet a fast and physical wide receiver, a pass rusher to pair with Terrell Suggs and an explosive return specialist. There is also a need to add depth at running back, linebacker, defensive line and safety.
And as always, if there is an opportunity to find the successors to long-time stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, that will have to be considered as well.
"It depends on who is available, it really does," coach John Harbaugh said. "You try to make yourself as strong as you can. One thing we're not adverse to is becoming stronger at a strong position. So if you have an opportunity to add a player or keep a player in a perceived area of strength, it just makes your team stronger. It gives you more options. If you have a glaring area of need, you want to fill it, but never at the expense of making your team better across the board."
There are several players who would fit well with the Ravens at No. 29, though there remains a distinct possibility that the team, which is no stranger to draft-day trades, moves out of the first round and accumulates more picks. Several draft pundits have labeled the Ravens prime candidates to do just that.
While quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are all but locked into going first and second overall, the rest of the first-round picture appears even more muddled than usual, making it even more difficult to project the Ravens' options with their first pick.
They would embrace the opportunity to select Alabama linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, but the pre-draft opinion is mixed on whether either will still be available for them. Wisconsin offensive linemen Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler would fill immediate needs, but there is some thought that the Ravens would be better off drafting an interior lineman later in the draft. Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill is pretty raw, but does he have too much potential to pass up? Several pass rushers, like Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and Boise State's Shea McClellin, could fall to them, but are they attractive enough to warrant picking a defensive player first for the third straight year?
"I don't want to give away my trade secrets, but we feel like our pick will be one of our top 20 players," DeCosta said.
The Ravens have long subscribed to the theory of picking the best player available, though their top picks in recent years have satisfied their biggest needs as well. Their two biggest question marks last year were cornerback and wide receiver, and they filled both with their first two picks, taking Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith.
They needed an offensive tackle in 2009 and got Michael Oher at pick 23. A year earlier, Joe Flacco was selected with the 18th overall pick, satisfying the long-standing calls for a franchise quarterback.
If that pattern continues, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will step up to the microphone Thursday night and announce that the Ravens have selected an offensive lineman, addressing the team's biggest question mark. But former Ravens coach Brian Billick has been around general manager Ozzie Newsome enough to know it doesn't always work that way.
"Ozzie has operated the draft successfully for years not having needs to address in the draft. Need is a terrible evaluator" said Billick, an analyst for Fox Sports and the NFL Network. "Clearly, you'd like to satisfy your needs, but you don't want to have to reach. That has always been Ozzie's approach to free agency, to satisfy your needs to the point where you can take the best player available in the draft. When we took Todd Heap, it wasn't a need position necessarily. The same with Ed Reed. They were the right player at the right time. Regardless of the need, Ozzie is going to stay true to his board. Everybody says that they stick to their plan and their board, but not everybody does it. Ozzie sets that pace."
The Ravens have been relatively quiet in free agency, re-signing veteran center Matt Birk, linebacker Jameel McClain, and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbandejo, and adding defensive backs and special teams standouts Corey Graham and Sean Considine. But they also lost six of their own free agents, including Grubbs and fellow starters Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding.
With just over $1.5 million of salary cap space — and a strong desire to sign Flacco, running back Ray Rice and cornerback Cary Williams to extensions — the Ravens don't have much financial flexibility to fill holes, magnifying the importance of this draft.
"Every time you have a draft, it seems like the next one is the most important, but I do think getting some help along the offensive line would seem to be an important initiative for them," said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, an analyst for CBS Sports and the NFL Network. "When you go in, especially when you are the Ravens, I'm not sure that you can get anybody that you can necessarily count on playing right away. What you are trying to do is get players for the long haul. By doing that, they're going to get some depth initially and eventually get some starters out of it."
Citing the Ravens' various needs and the strength of their division, Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts Inc. listed them as one of the teams that need to have a good draft.
"It's not going to be easy for the Ravens to maintain the status 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," Williamson said. "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 a year or two [and] that's hard to come up with. They need a safety. They need a pass rusher opposite Suggs. They have a pretty long laundry list, but if anyone's going to pull it off, I trust Ozzie Newsome to do so."
Since 1996, the Ravens have drafted 15 players that have gone on to make the Pro Bowl, tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the third most in the NFL. It would be unfair to put those expectations on the organization's newest players after this weekend, but the Ravens will certainly need immediate contributions from their 2012 draft class.
"You do the best you can and in the end, you have to make a pick," DeCosta said. "You can't run away from it. You hope you hit on a guy."
Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel contributed to this article