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Ravens draft preview: Why a highly rated ILB, blocking TE and versatile RB could be surprise picks

At some point during their predraft news conference Monday, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta or coach John Harbaugh will probably get a question about the team’s needs, and they’ll probably offer some version of the company line, something about how what they need are talented players and hard workers, whether they find them in the first round or with the last pick of the NFL draft.

Of course, some needs are more needy than others. The Ravens already have a quarterback. A wide receiver group of the same caliber? Not so much. The offensive line has Pro Bowl tackles but a question mark at center. There is a big hole at edge rusher and smaller concerns at safety and defensive line.

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As the draft approaches over the next two weeks, The Baltimore Sun will examine potential prospects at areas of need. But if the Ravens take the best player available in the early or middle rounds, they could find good value there, too. Here are five prospects the front office could target — and why they might be surprisingly good fits.

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins works out for scouts at NFL pro day Friday, April 2, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins works out for scouts at NFL pro day Friday, April 2, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Inside linebacker

Patrick Queen’s plus-size sidekick: Tulsa’s Zaven Collins

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The Ravens took Queen in the first round a year ago. They re-signed fellow starter L.J. Fort this month. They’re well stocked with young up-and-comers, including 2019 third-round pick Malik Harrison. Ignoring their deficiencies on defense to take another inside linebacker in the first round would be bold.

Unless, maybe, Collins is still on the board. If Queen is lightning, the 6-foot-5, 259-pound Collins is rolling thunder, another freakish force that can hit from anywhere. In just eight games last season, he had four interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. In just 51 pass-rush snaps, he had four sacks. While Collins has said he feels most comfortable as an off-ball linebacker, his size and jack-of-all-trades skill set would make him a fascinating chess piece in a defense as creative as Don “Wink” Martindale’s.

Tulsa defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie told the Tulsa World in November that NFL teams had already begun to ask what kind of player Collins was. “Honestly, my response has started becoming, ‘What is he not?’ " Gillespie said. “We’ve done so many things with him. … He just continues to progress and produce and flourish.”

Projection: Round 1

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Honorable mention: North Carolina ILB Chazz Surratt (Round 3-4). A converted quarterback who’s played only two seasons on defense, he shows the athleticism and inexperience of a boom-or-bust prospect.

Offensive tackle

The just-wait-till-next-year pupil: Cincinnati’s James Hudson

Outside of quarterback Lamar Jackson, maybe no player will dictate the Ravens’ roster management over the next year more than Orlando Brown Jr. Barring a change of heart from the Pro Bowl right tackle, DeCosta will have to find a replacement by either Week 1 of 2021 or Week 1 of 2022. There are few promising in-house options; the Ravens’ depth falls off considerably after their starting tackles: Andre Smith? Tyre Phillips?

If the Ravens can afford to take on a more developmental prospect next season, the 6-5, 313-pound Hudson might prove worth the wait. A two-way player in high school, he started his career as a highly touted defensive end at Michigan. Hudson moved back to left tackle in 2018, sat out all but one 2019 game after transferring to Cincinnati, then took over as the Bearcats’ starting left tackle last season.

Offensive tackle James Hudson of Cincinnati (55) prepares to block Janarius Robinson of Florida State (96) during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala, on Jan. 30, 2021.
Offensive tackle James Hudson of Cincinnati (55) prepares to block Janarius Robinson of Florida State (96) during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala, on Jan. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

The markers of inexperience are there: inconsistent technique, overeagerness in pass protection and a dud of a bowl game against Georgia, from which he was ejected for a targeting penalty. But Hudson moves well, has big hands, and pairs a bully mentality with good power. While his below-average arm length might limit his long-term potential, he still has starter-caliber traits.

Projection: Round 2-3

Honorable mention: Northern Iowa OT Spencer Brown (Round 2-3). A postponed 2020 season kept him from the field, but his imposing 6-8 frame and surprising agility should be enough for teams to overlook his footwork and leverage issues.

Tight end

A souped-up, slimmed-down Patrick Ricard: Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble

DeCosta said in January that the Ravens are a “tight end-centric offense,” but they could enter training camp with only one fully healthy contributor in Mark Andrews, plus a hybrid in Ricard. If coordinator Greg Roman’s ideal offense is still more smashmouth than spread, it makes sense to invest in the position. Nick Boyle’s recovering from a season-ending knee injury, and Ricard could hit the open market next year as a three-time Pro Bowl selection.

At 6-3 and 241 pounds, Tremble does not have Boyle’s size or Ricard’s intimidation factor. But Tremble’s speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash) and open-field blocking ability could make the Ravens’ running game even more of a headache. Oftentimes, Roman will have Boyle or Ricard go in motion before the snap, then take on an edge rusher or clear space out wide. Tremble gets there in a hurry. With the tension that Jackson’s speed creates for defenses, a block executed a split-second faster could mean the difference between a 5-yard gain and 50-yard gain.

And if Tremble can become the kind of powerful blocker that he was at Notre Dame, he’ll find ample receiving opportunities in the NFL. Ricard had 10 catches over the Ravens’ final six games last season, largely on uncovered routes to the flat. Tremble can not only run those patterns but also get vertical as an in-line tight end, adding another dimension to any offense’s play-action looks.

Projection: Round 3-4

Honorable mention: Boston College TE Hunter Long (Round 3-4). A well-rounded receiver and blocker with good size (6-5, 254 pounds), he led Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends in catches (57) and receiving yards (685) last season.

Running back

A ready-made third-down back: Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell

J.K. Dobbins led all NFL running backs in yards per carry in 2020, Gus Edwards continued his ultra-efficient production, and Justice Hill emerged as a special teams contributor after early-season injuries. So the last thing the Ravens need is another running back, right? On paper, sure. But in explaining the team’s selection of Dobbins last offseason, DeCosta pointed to the position’s injury-prone nature. And now Mark Ingram II is elsewhere, leaving one less body.

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Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell
Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell (Kyle Okita/CSM/Zuma Press/TNS)

If the Ravens want to add a potential third-string running back, it would make sense to draft someone whose skill set complements Dobbins and Edwards’. Gainwell’s receiving ability would be a welcome addition. In 2019, he lined up in the backfield, the slot and out wide and had 51 catches for 610 yards and three touchdowns in Memphis’ spread attack. According to Pro Football Focus, he has only three drops on 60 career catchable targets. (Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season.)

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As a runner, he averaged 6.3 yards per carry in 2019, showing elusiveness and toughness after contact. Despite weighing in at 201 pounds at his Pro Day, the 5-11 Gainwell is considered a willing and sound blocker, which should only help his case as a third-down back. And with only one season of significant experience, there’s room to grow.

Projection: Round 3-4

Honorable mention: Oklahoma RB Rhamondre Stevenson (Round 4-5). After forcing 36 missed tackles on just 101 rushing attempts last season, the 5-11, 228-pound bowling ball could be a potential Edwards replacement.

Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson sets up for a play during a game against Tulsa on Oct. 3, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.
Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson sets up for a play during a game against Tulsa on Oct. 3, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Cornerback

The emergency nickelback: Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson

The Ravens enter 2021 with one of the NFL’s deepest cornerback rooms. By 2022, though, the turnover at the position could be staggering. Jimmy Smith is on a one-year deal. Tavon Young is injury-prone and, if released next offseason, wouldn’t have a huge dead-money charge. Anthony Averett’s entering the final year of his rookie deal. Iman Marshall has played in three games in two years.

Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters give the Ravens two strong outside cornerbacks through at least 2022, but there’s good reason to look for another nickelback. At 5-11, 186 pounds, Robinson has the size and quickness to play inside or outside, and his experience is well suited to the Ravens’ aggressive style. He played over 40% of his snaps in press coverage over the past two years, according to PFF, most of which were in the slot.

Robinson was vastly improved as a tackler last season, and his effort in the Knights’ run defense was an asset. His ball skills (three interceptions over three seasons), instincts in zone coverage and lack of top-end speed are considered his biggest limitations.

Projection: Round 3-4

Honorable mention: LSU CB Kary Vincent Jr (Round 4-5). He showed his blazing speed at the Tigers’ Pro Day, but opting out of the 2020 season robbed him of a year of development in the slot.

NFL DRAFT

Cleveland

April 29-May 1

TV: ESPN, NFL Network

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