At the Ravens’ season-ending press conference two months ago, general manager Ozzie Newsome stated his team’s most glaring needs entering the offseason.
The Ravens have boosted their special teams and retained center Matt Birk and inside linebacker Jameel McClain in free agency, but limited cap space has hindered their ability to make improvements in other areas. As a result, the organization will rely on the avenue in which they’ve thrived over the last 16 years — the draft — to make improvements at the positions Newsome and the front office referenced in early February.
“I don’t think that has changed much from the end of the season,” Newsome said. “We need to add some players on the offensive line. We can add another receiver. We still feel that we can add some depth at the pass-rush position or at SAM ‘backer.”
With Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs signing a five-year contract to join the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens have a huge hole on the offensive line they will desperately try to address in the early rounds. While coach John Harbaugh has expressed optimism that second-year tackle Jah Reid can make the transition to the inside, a viable competitor for the position is a necessity in trying to replace the team’s best offensive lineman.
Director of player personnel Eric DeCosta offered no surprises in assessing the top interior lineman in the draft, mentioning Stanford’s David DeCastro, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz of Wisconsins, and Georgia’s Cordy Glenn. DeCosta praised Glenn’s ability to play multiple positions on the line, but his comments were lukewarm when asked about Konz’s potential to be moved from his normal center position to guard as some have suggested with Birk back at center for 2012.
Of the aforementioned names, the Ravens are unlikely to have each at their disposal with the 29th overall pick, but they remain confident in their ability to land a quality offensive line prospect in the first few rounds.
“I think we have players in every round that we like,” DeCosta said. “One of the things we try to do is ascertain the value, league-wise, and then look at our value, how we value players. And usually, there’s a match there for us. At any point in any round we have a couple of players to choose from in any given position, for sure.”
Though not as pressing as left guard, wide receiver is another position at which the Ravens would like to add depth behind starters Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. A speedy receiver with size would bring more diversity to the passing game and provide another red-zone target for quarterback Joe Flacco.
Georgia Tech wideout Stephen Hill has stolen draft-season headlines with impressive workouts, ideal height (6-feet-4), and a 4.33-second 40 time even though his college production was underwhelming in a run-first offensive attack. His measurables have propelled his draft stock as high as the second half of the first round, according to some prognosticators.
“He’s an explosive guy who plays in that triple-option offense and really jumped off the film in terms of vertical speed,” director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. “He’s raw, like a lot of guys are who have come out of that offense, [like] Demaryius Thomas. Their route polish isn’t quite there, but his athletic traits are really outstanding and exceptional, rare for the position.”
The Ravens will also look at versatile wide receivers who can add to the return game, an area in which they struggled in 2011. Coach John Harbaugh admitted in a perfect world he would like to have a backup handle punt return duties rather than starting cornerback Lardarius Webb but would not go as far as saying he won’t return punts in 2012.
With the departures of backups Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura via free agency and starters Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard entering the final year of their respective contracts, safety is a position at which the Ravens need to add depth as well as potentially search for long-term solutions.
Alabama’s Mark Barron is the consensus top safety in the draft, but it’s unlikely he’ll be on the board by the time the Ravens pick in the first round. Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith might be a more realistic option at the end of the first round or early in the second if the Ravens would choose to trade back.
“Harrison Smith is an interesting guy, too,” DeCosta said. “He’s a big, rangy safety who runs pretty well. He’s got good ball skills. He’s very smart. I think he’s a two-time captain at Notre Dame, which tells you about his personality, intangibles and leadership. Both guys are very good players.”
While only so much should be taken from Wednesday’s pre-draft press conference — nicknamed the “liar’s luncheon” over the years — the Ravens will maintain the same philosophy that’s brought them so much draft success in the history of the franchise.
“Some needs have to go into play, because we have to fulfill them,” Newsome said. “But we still — and we have said this for 16 years — we will not take [a lesser player for] need over a real good player at another position.”