With the NFL Draft a mere two weeks away, Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, and the Ravens front office continue to evaluate talent and configure their board in anticipation for April 25-26.
For the first time in franchise history, the Ravens appear to have the franchise quarterback that has eluded them after numerous failed draft picks (Kyle Boller and Chris Redman) and unsuccessful retreads (Jim Harbaugh, Scott Mitchell, and Jeff Blake to name a few). It’s safe to assume the Ravens will not be selecting a quarterback in the first few rounds, especially after re-signing veteran third-stringer Todd Bouman to mentor backup Troy Smith and starter Joe Flacco.
Entering the early stages of free agency, the Ravens had needs at cornerback, wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker, tight end, and center.
The free agent signings of Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr, and the re-signing of veteran Samari Rolle decrease the need for a corner in this year’s draft, a possible blessing due to the general consensus that this year’s corner class is not very strong.
Many draft experts such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper still have the Ravens taking cornerback Vontae Davis from Illinois in the first round, but questions exist about his work ethic and temperament after being benched by Illinois coach Ron Zook at one point in the 2008 season.
Davis is the younger brother of 49ers tight end and former Maryland standout Vernon Davis, another factor that might send him down the board. Like his older brother, Davis possesses all of the physical tools to be great, but critics wonder if he will work to reach his full potential at the next level.
Though it’s less likely the Ravens draft a corner in the first or second round, the team could still grab one and elect to cut veteran Frank Walker to clear some cap room.
Following the loss of Jason Brown, Newsome filled the need at center by signing free agent Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl center from Minnesota. The Ravens could still look for a center in the middle rounds to develop, as they did in 2005 by selecting Brown in the fourth round.
The signing of L.J. Smith provides a solid backup for Todd Heap at tight end, but the Ravens could still look to draft a tight end to develop and compete with Quinn Sypniewski and Edgar Jones for the third tight end spot.
So, with two weeks to go, the Ravens’ biggest needs remain at wide receiver, defensive end, and linebacker.
Newsome insists he does not need to draft a receiver and that he’s happy with the current personnel, but this is the typical posturing we see around the league at this time of year. With Derrick Mason at 35 and Mark Clayton failing to live up to his first-round billing, the Ravens would benefit from bringing in a young receiving threat for Flacco.
Taking a receiver in the first round is a dicey proposition, given the high frequency of failed picks in recent years. Unless the Ravens are truly enamored with the speed of Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey, the playmaking ability of Florida’s Percy Harvin, or the size of Rutger’s Kenny Britt (6-3), they would be better served to look for receiving talent in the later rounds. Nearly every season, one or two teams are able to find a Marques Colston (seventh round in 2006) or a Brandon Marshall (fourth round in 2006) later in the draft.
The needs at defensive end and linebacker are more about the future than needing a contributor in 2009. Trevor Pryce does not have much tread left on the tires, so the Ravens will need to think about drafting a defensive end that can pressure the quarterback. The top 3-4 alignment defensive end in the draft is Tyson Jackson, but most mock drafts predict him to go before the Ravens pick at 26. If he slides to the Ravens, it would be hard to envision the Ravens passing on him.
At inside linebacker, the 34-year-old Ray Lewis will need a stronger counterpart to take on blockers and provide solid pass coverage. Tavares Gooden is the best in-house candidate to start at inside linebacker, but he lacks size and is unproven after spending most of last season on IR.
The Ravens would love to see USC’s Rey Maualuga fall to them, but unless teams are still worried about his hamstring injury, he isn’t going to be around by the end of the first.
James Laurinaitis of Ohio State is another possibility mentioned as the Ravens’ first-round pick, but he lacks speed, posting a 4.82 40-time at the NFL Combine. Scouts often doubt the ability of Big Ten linebackers to adjust to the speed of the NFL, so add Laurinaitis to that list.
The Ravens are in the enviable position of not having any crucial needs to address entering the draft. As clichéd as it has become over the last 14 years, the Ravens can truly take the “best player available” when they’re on the clock at 26th.
With the Ravens only holding six choices in this year’s draft, they might elect to trade their first round pick and move down into the early second round to pick up an extra pick or two in the middle rounds. For as much success that Newsome has had in the first round, the Ravens have built the foundation of past playoff teams by choosing middle-round standouts such as Brown, Dawan Landry, Jarret Johnson, and Adalius Thomas.
Let’s not forget the Ravens’ reputation for making draft-day trades to acquire veterans. Last year, it was Fabian Washington, and they grabbed veteran receiver Kevin Johnson in 2004. However, expecting a major trade for Chad Johnson or Anquan Boldin would be unrealistic, given the cap room it would take to acquire either receiver.
As Newsome hinted recently, this may be the best roster the Ravens have had prior to the draft, an exciting proposition for a team that was one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl. It’s easy to focus on the team’s deficiencies, but many quickly forget the Ravens had 19 players on IR last season, including Gooden, Landry, Marshal Yanda, Demetrius Williams, and Kelly Gregg.
And, oh yeah, Flacco will have a full offseason and training camp to prepare, knowing he’s the starting quarterback after being thrown into the fire as the starter at the end of the preseason last year. If he could perform that well under those conditions, just imagine the possibilities for this season and beyond.
With the Ravens re-signing Rolle this week and eliminating the immediate need for a cornerback, my gut tells me the Ravens ultimately trade down into the early part of the second round and take an extra pick or two for DeCosta and the scouting staff to find great value in the middle rounds.
Though we won’t know what scenarios will play out in two weeks, you can expect a pretty good football team will only get better by the end of the weekend.