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Ranking the Ravens’ top five draft priorities: edge rusher, offensive lineman or wide receiver? | ANALYSIS

The Ravens have serious work to do in the NFL draft.

They need to fine-tune a roster that’s expected to carry them to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. They also need to fortify against the inevitable talent drain that will go hand-in-hand with the hefty extensions they offer to young stars, most notably quarterback Lamar Jackson. We saw the beginning of this exodus last month when they made little effort to retain free-agent outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. The Ravens can’t afford to keep everyone, so they must backfill with cheaper players from the draft.

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They made significant progress in that direction last year, when each of the six players they drafted in the first three rounds made immediate contributions. With just one pick in each of the first three rounds this year, they’ll have less ammunition to make improvements. So they’ll have to be that much more precise in nailing the right combinations of player and need.

We know general manager Eric DeCosta has always preached “best player available.” With so much activity set to unfold before the Ravens pick at No. 27 overall, we can’t say with any certainty they’ll pick a wide receiver over an edge rusher or a future starting tackle over either one. We can, however, rank their needs going into the draft, with an eye on the depth of talent at each spot.

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Miami lineman Jaelan Phillips celebrates intercepting a pass against Florida State during a game Sept. 26, 2020.
Miami lineman Jaelan Phillips celebrates intercepting a pass against Florida State during a game Sept. 26, 2020. (TNS)

Edge rusher

We’ve seen Don “Wink” Martindale coordinate excellent pass defenses without help from a double-digit sack producer. The Ravens have deliberately built around their secondary and eschewed investing free-agent dollars or high draft picks on pass rushers. That said, DeCosta did trade a third-round pick for Ngakoue. The deal didn’t pay off, but it hinted at the front office’s belief that an edge rusher might put the Ravens over the top.

Six months later, with Judon and Ngakoue employed in other NFL cities, the Ravens are desperately short on established outside linebackers. They brought back Tyus Bowser, who’s more valuable for his versatility than his pass-rushing production, and Pernell McPhee, who’s better as an edge setter than a quarterback hunter. They could use fresh legs at one of the league’s premium positions.

If mock drafts are correct, the Ravens will have their chance to draft a gifted edge defender at the end of the first round. Might that be Azeez Ojulari, who produced as a pass rusher at Georgia despite his small frame? Or Jaelan Phillips, who looks the part and had a great 2020 season at Miami after an injury-hampered start to his college career? Or Zaven Collins of Tulsa, who projects as more of a versatile player in the mold of Judon or Bowser?

We know the Ravens need a player at this position, and the appealing options will thin out more quickly than at offensive line or wide receiver (though players such as Joseph Ossai of Texas or Patrick Jones II of Pittsburgh might appeal outside the first round).

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Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman makes a catch during his pro day on April 1, 2021, in Minneapolis.
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman makes a catch during his pro day on April 1, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

Wide receiver

We don’t need another recitation of the Ravens’ struggles at this glamour position. Suffice it to say they could use a pass catcher other than Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews to open up the field for Jackson. They made progress in this direction by signing veteran Sammy Watkins, whose versatility and familiarity with offensive coordinator Greg Roman will play well. Watkins has not been a downfield threat or a durable starter in recent seasons, however, so the Ravens still need to look for a long-term solution in the draft. This might be their only avenue given the difficulty of attracting a star free agent to the league’s least prolific passing offense.

Again, mock drafts suggest the Ravens will have their chance to add an outside-the-numbers threat in round one. Rashod Bateman of Minnesota and Terrace Marshall Jr. of LSU are the players most often linked to them, with Marshall’s size, speed and big-play pedigree making him a “no-brainer” for the Ravens in the opinion of ESPN analyst Todd McShay. Other scouts question Marshall’s ability to get open and prefer Bateman’s more polished route running.

Would either player represent optimal value for the Ravens in a draft loaded with intriguing wide receivers (think Dyami Brown of North Carolina or 6-foot-4 Nico Collins of Michigan) who will be available on Day Two?

Oklahoma State offensive lineman Teven Jenkins (73) gets set to block during a game against Texas in Stillwater, Okla., on Oct. 31, 2020.
Oklahoma State offensive lineman Teven Jenkins (73) gets set to block during a game against Texas in Stillwater, Okla., on Oct. 31, 2020. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Offensive line

If the Ravens trade Orlando Brown Jr., this need would leapfrog to the top of the list. Even if Brown is penciled into the 2021 lineup, this is where the Ravens faltered most notably in their playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. They would benefit from finding Brown’s replacement a year early and perhaps starting that player at guard (shades of Jonathan Ogden).

The Ravens took an important step by signing veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, the dependable blocker they lacked on the right side in 2020. They seem comfortable trying Bradley Bozeman at center, where his size and consistency would fit their profile for the position. Even so, they seem a lineman short, especially when we think ahead to 2022.

This draft is stacked with tackles and interior blockers who could contribute right away. Whether you like a powerhouse right tackle prospect such as Teven Jenkins of Oklahoma State or a monstrous guard/center candidate such as Landon Dickerson of Alabama, the Ravens will have appealing options in the first round. If they look elsewhere, they’ll have more chances to draft a potential starter on Day Two. We know they’ll draft at least one offensive lineman; the questions are how high and at which position?

TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (7) comes down with the ball for an interception on a pass intended for Oklahoma State wide receiver Dillon Stoner (17) during a game in Stillwater, Okla., on Nov. 2, 2019.
TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (7) comes down with the ball for an interception on a pass intended for Oklahoma State wide receiver Dillon Stoner (17) during a game in Stillwater, Okla., on Nov. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Safety

The prospect of a big-play threat on the back end will always hold allure for the franchise that featured Ed Reed, but we’re talking more luxury than must-have.

Starting safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott held up well enough in 2020. Clark might not blow us away in any one area, but he’s above average in coverage and dependable as a defensive signal caller if the Ravens need him in that role. Elliott stepped in for Earl Thomas III and brought hard-hitting swagger as a run defender. Would the Ravens like more than one combined interception from a pair of safeties who hardly left the field? Sure, but their lack of turnover production is mitigated by the interceptions and forced fumbles accumulated by cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

Trevon Moehrig of TCU or Richie Grant of UCF might catch DeCosta’s eye as potential ballhawks, but it’s not clear either would be the best value available at No. 27. The Ravens would be fine if they come out with a developmental safety prospect on Day Three.

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Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore (58) celebrates a sack against Notre Dame during the Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 1, 2021.
Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore (58) celebrates a sack against Notre Dame during the Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Defensive line

Again, this would be a luxury for a team that just added Justin Madubuike to a crew of quality veterans. We know the Ravens love drafting defensive linemen, and they’re perhaps a year or two away from needing a younger core to step in for Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe. Given these truths, we can’t rule out a Day One or Day Two pick at the position.

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The player who’d really make the Ravens think is Christian Barmore, who dominated in his one season as a starter at Alabama and could develop into a rare interior pass rusher. Would Barmore’s upside be enough to steer DeCosta away from prospects who’d probably play more snaps in 2021? He’d at least be worth the discussion on draft night.

NFL DRAFT

Cleveland

April 29-May 1

TV: ESPN, NFL Network

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