Baltimore Ravens' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
The Baltimore Ravens enjoyed a great start to the offseason, signing good players to better contracts, but the roster still isn’t complete. General manager Ozzie Newsome has five key areas to focus on, and we’re going to rank them in order of importance right now.
The first is free safety, where the Ravens don’t have a viable starter at the moment—regardless of what the coaching staff is saying. It’s a copycat league, and the Seattle Seahawks showed everyone how advantageous it can be to have a great safety tandem. Baltimore doesn’t have it…yet.
Next on the offseason priority list is right tackle. Even though losing Michael Oher may have been addition by subtraction, bringing in a really good right tackle will complete the makeover the offensive line has experienced.
Those two needs are in a category of their own because a starting-caliber player is required. But depth is necessary in the NFL, and the Ravens are sorely lacking it in the last three positions of this list: tight end, running back and cornerback.
1. Free Safety
Head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week, via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, that either Matt Elam or newly acquired Darian Stewart could start at free safety. That’s just not true.
Well, it’s true in the sense that anybody could start at free safety, but it’s not true if the Ravens are serious about winning football games.
Both Elam and Stewart have the athleticism, speed and range to play the position but lack the instincts and coverage skills to be anything more than a mediocre free safety.
Elam definitely has more potential to do it than Stewart, and that would be a terrible mistake by the coaching staff because the former first-round pick has the potential to be a special strong safety.
The defense was an improved unit last year—save for the fourth quarter—but it lacked a true centerfielder. Someone who could prevent big plays, create turnovers and make quarterbacks fear him. In other words, the Ravens missed Ed Reed.
At this stage of the game, the first-class free agents (and even most of the second-tier guys) at the position are gone, with Chris Clemons and Thomas DeCoud sitting on the market.
Both of those players are capable, but the Ravens waiting this long is an indication that they’ll explore the draft. There are only three free safeties that will come in with the ability to start from Day 1: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama), Calvin Pryor (Louisville) and Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois).
Newsome won’t reach for any player, but he’ll have a tough time passing up one of those players if they’re on the board when the Ravens pick. Two young safeties is a concern. Two young early-round safeties is the foundation of a dominant secondary—especially when paired with the duo of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.
2. Right Tackle
With Eugene Monroe re-signed, Kelechi Osemele healthy, Jeremy Zuttah replacing Gino Gradkowski and the ever-solid Marshal Yanda at right guard, the O-line looks pretty promising. Until you see Rick Wagner.
Right now, he is penciled in as the starting right tackle. That’s not a terrible thing, but it’s not great either, and the last thing Baltimore wants is any question marks along the O-line after the debacle of last year.
Adding a starting-caliber right tackle is imperative and is just as important as adding a free safety. The only reason it falls to No. 2 on this list is that Wagner or Jah Reid would be able to start somewhat competently at the position, whereas there is no real free safety that could start if the season opened today.
There are still a few interesting (and cheap) veteran options on the market, but none of them makes more sense than freshly inaugurated president of the players’ union Eric Winston. With experience in the zone-blocking scheme and a relationship with Gary Kubiak, Winston is the no-brainer if Baltimore chooses to sign a free agent.
But they probably won’t. Not until after the draft, where the Ravens will have access to a deep crop of young tackles.
Zack Martin (Notre Dame) will be a prospect of interest in the first round, but Newsome may need to look at second-round prospects like Morgan Moses (Virginia) or Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) if he chooses to draft a safety in the first.
There are intriguing players all the way into the third round, with small-school players like Joel Bitonio (Nevada) and Billy Turner (North Dakota State) drawing rave reviews over the predraft process.
Because of the depth in this class, it would be surprising to see Newsome pass on a right tackle in the draft.
3. Tight End
Re-signing Dennis Pitta was huge for the Ravens, but he’s the only tight end on the roster with NFL experience. Matt Furstenburg is an interesting prospect, but Baltimore would like to keep him on the practice squad for another year to adjust to the professional game and refine his skills.
There is no question that Newsome is bringing in a tight end at some point, but from where? Since Pitta is essentially a receiver and doesn’t add anything to the running game, the most important characteristic for the secondary tight end is the ability to get the job done in the blocking game.
The Ravens have reportedly reached out to Ed Dickson and Owen Daniels, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN, but neither of them fits the bill as a run-blocker.
There are some intriguing receiving options in the draft, but C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa) is the only one that you can truly rely on as a blocker in his rookie year.
As a result, it seems likely that the Ravens will try to sign an experienced blocker like Kellen Davis or Ben Hartsock.
4. Running Back
Most of the running game woes of 2013 should be blamed on the disgraceful performance of the O-line, but neither Ray Rice nor Bernard Pierce helped matters. To be fair, injuries hampered both players, but a little competition never hurt anyone and depth is necessary at the running back position thanks to the tremendous punishment they take.
As a result, look for the Ravens to add a back—and they’re going to do so in the draft.
The options still on the free-agent market are unappealing, and LeGarrette Blount was the only worthwhile option before he signed with the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Furthermore, there are so many talented mid-to-late-round backs that can come in and contribute right away.
In the third and fourth rounds, players like Terrance West (Towson) and Andre Williams (Boston College) are talented runners that could earn carries right out of the gate—even pushing Bernard Pierce for the backup job immediately.
In the later rounds, prospects like James White (Wisconsin), Isaiah Crowell (Alabama State) and James Wilder Jr. (Florida State) are backs with lower upside, but ones that excel in certain aspects of the running back position.
Given the success of late-round backs (and even undrafted players), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Ravens double-dip by spending a Day 3 pick on a back and then signing an undrafted free agent to add even more competition.
Baltimore was right not to match the Buffalo Bills’ offer to Corey Graham, but he was a reliable third-string corner that was excellent on special teams and could start in a pinch if necessary.
Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson will duke it out for the No. 3 spot, but they may not be alone in that competition by the time training camp rolls around.
For starters, neither of them are sure things to handle the great responsibility of a nickel corner. Given their inexperience, it would be nice to add an experienced cornerback for depth, like Jabari Greer or Terrell Thomas.
Nevertheless, you can never have too many cornerbacks, and Newsome could opt to go with a blend of youth and experience by drafting a player in addition to signing one of the aforementioned free agents.
Corner is one of the deepest positions in the draft, and the Ravens could add a raw project with the physical tools like Antone Exum (Virginia Tech) or a solid player with limited athleticism like Ross Cockrell (Duke) as late as the sixth round.
There are so many talented corners that are going to fall down the board, and that’s where the Ravens can pounce by adding a cornerback with the ability to contribute on defense in addition to being a core member of special teams.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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