5 Positions the Baltimore Ravens Will Be Watching at the Scouting Combine
While the NFL Scouting Combine is by no means the only tool teams use to build their draft boards—that process has been going on for the past 12 months—it does provide them with a closer look at the players who may have caught their eye over time as well as the overall state of particular position groups.
In the following slides, I detail five positions the Baltimore Ravens will be paying the closest attention to at this year's combine as well as certain players who might catch their eye.
With Ray Lewis retiring after 17 years in the league and the Ravens' salary cap situation potentially forcing Dannell Ellerbe to find work with another team, Baltimore needs to look closely at this year's draft class to find additional interior linebackers.
However, with the 32nd pick in the first round, trying to find someone who could be an instant starter will be difficult. Maybe the Ravens can find themselves a sleeper pick who fits their needs, either in that first round or later, or perhaps what they see at the combine, in concert with their draft status, may push them to trade up or to find a way to work out a deal with Ellerbe.
Regardless of whether Ellerbe stays or goes, however, the Ravens will still need to bolster their inside linebacker depth. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller thinks the Ravens could pick up Notre Dame's Manti Te'o in the first round, but Te'o's performance in the BCS Championship Game has made him a more risky selection than he was just a few months before that.
The Ravens will need to see proof that his down performance against Alabama was a fluke and not indicative of how he'll handle the speed of the NFL. Whoever they take 32nd overall—Te'o or anyone else—will be required to contribute in his first season. They cannot waste this pick.
ESPN's Mel Kiper also thinks the Ravens should go with an interior lineman with their first-round pick, but he thinks that LSU's Kevin Minter would be the ideal selection—if he's still available. The Ravens won't be the only team with their eyes on Minter at the combine, but he'd be a great replacement for Lewis. He's fast and a good tackler, playing well in both coverage and against the run.
Another linebacker the Ravens will be paying attention to is Alec Ogletree of Georgia. He will be under the microscope for more than his performance in drills, however; Ogletree was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season for a failed drug test.
The Ravens, like other interested teams, will need to see just what kind of a red-flag risk he is. However, if other teams come away wary of Ogletree, that could be to the Ravens benefit come draft day.
In this year's draft, offensive tackle, guard and center are all in play for the Ravens. Though Bryant McKinnie transformed the team's offensive line throughout the playoffs after being inserted at left tackle, he's an unrestricted free agent this year, and the Ravens may not be able to retain him.
Center Matt Birk's future is up in the air, with retirement a very real possibility. Guard/tackle Ramon Harewood is also an unrestricted free agent, Michael Oher has shown he's not well-suited to the left tackle job, guard Jah Reid dealt with first a calf and then later, a toe injury, that marred his 2012 season. Needless to say, the overall depth and talent level of the Ravens' offensive line could certainly use work.
The problem here is whether or not there's a worthy offensive tackle for the Ravens in the first round. Or whether there's one they could find in the second or third round who will be skilled enough to compete for a starting job right away. The same can also be said for both guards and centers. So they'll need to pay special attention to the offensive linemen at the combine and try to find themselves a diamond in the rough in earlier rounds.
Oklahoma's Lane Johnson may be the only starting-caliber offensive tackle available to the Ravens in the first round.
His Senior Bowl performance, in particular, has his draft stock on the rise, and the combine will do much to solidify just what kind of first-rounder he'll be—if Johnson moves up to a top-20-type pick, the Ravens may have to trade up if they're in love with his skill set. Otherwise Syracuse's Justin Pugh or LSU's Chris Faulk would be their next best bets, in the second round.
At guard, the Ravens may have better luck. The level of talent in this year's draft class combined with relative demand around the league could result in the Ravens finding the right fit in the second or third rounds. Guys the Ravens will be watching at the combine include Tennessee's Dallas Thomas, Kentucky's Larry Warford, Alabama's Barrett Jones and Wisconsin's Travis Frederick.
Both Jones and Frederick have played multiple offensive line positions. Jones could be better off as a center in the NFL while Frederick, who moved to center in 2012, seems to be a better professional guard. A versatile lineman would be an ideal pickup for the Ravens this year, so players who have had experience at more than one position should be squarely on Baltimore's radar.
Though the Ravens are in little to no danger of losing some of their pass-rush talent—like linebacker Terrell Suggs or defensive end Pernell McPhee—they might not have linebacker Paul Kruger after free agency begins, depending on how they manage their salary cap.
And even if they can retain Kruger, the Ravens still need to add depth to their crew of pass-rushers. McPhee and Suggs both battled injuries in 2012, which severely hampered their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Considering the situation, the Ravens could be in the market for a new pass-rusher at any point of the draft, so it's certainly a position they'll be taking time to evaluate at the NFL Scouting Combine. Both 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers are in play for the team, which employs a hybrid-style defense.
Someone who needs to be squarely on their radar is Georgia's Jarvis Jones. Jones, who suffers from spinal stenosis, was medically cleared this week, but earlier in his collegiate career he had to leave USC for Georgia after the Trojans' medical staff said that he should quit the game.
While he's considered one of the draft's top pass-rushers, health concerns as well as his smaller size could see him slide down draft boards, making him potentially available to the Ravens at 32. Though this seems like a long shot, the Ravens will still need to look closely at Jones at the combine.
Oregon's Dion Jordan, Texas' Alex Okafor and LSU's Sam Montgomery could also be first-round possibilities for the Ravens should the pass rush become their top priority. Stanford's Chase Thomas could be of second- or third-round interest for the Ravens, especially because he could also move to the inside if needed.
If pass rush isn't a high-priority area for Baltimore, then a mid-to-late-round prospect like Western Kentucky's Quanterus Smith might be an option. His size, however, is a concern, as well as his recent ACL tear. He won't likely participate in combine drills.
Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin said last week that if the Ravens release him—freeing up his $6 million 2013 salary to relieve some cap pressure—he'll retire. Without Boldin, who led the team in receiving yardage in 2012 and was a major piece to their Super Bowl-winning puzzle, the Ravens are in a bind at receiver.
Their next best option currently on the roster would be Tandon Doss, a 2011 draft pick who had just seven regular season receptions in 2012. If he were the solution to anything, he wouldn't have played second fiddle to Jacoby Jones this past season.
Whether Boldin stays or goes, the Ravens need to do something to bolster their receiving corps, especially now that the conservative Cam Cameron has given way to the more aggressive and complex Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator.
This isn't a major priority for Baltimore—though the urgency does increase should Boldin leave—but the Ravens need to really take a close look at some mid-round receiving talent in hopes of getting someone who can contribute right away and relieve them of having to lean on Doss.
Boldin is a slot-possession hybrid who plays physically and fearlessly. The Ravens will likely be looking to the combine to find someone who possesses these traits but who also doesn't project to be a first-, second- or third-round selection.
Ryan Swope of Texas A&M could fit this mold. Hard to defend and possessing deceptive speed, Swope has drawn comparisons to Wes Welker.
Also intriguing is Michigan's Denard Robinson, who will be making the switch from college quarterback to NFL receiver. If he displays good hands and strong route running, the Ravens could find him impressive enough to draft.
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is an unrestricted free agent, and because of the Ravens' cap woes (a common refrain these days), he will likely have to take his talents elsewhere in 2013 if he wants to keep playing.
On top of that, two other Ravens safeties—Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo—are also both unrestricted free agents, and may too become cap casualties.
If that's the case, that leaves the Ravens with just Bernard Pollard and Omar Brown at safety, meaning they'll need to address the position in the draft. Though they also have Emanuel Cook, Anthony Levine and Christian Thompson on the roster at safety, all three ended 2012 on injured reserve, and the Ravens may need someone more reliable and ready to start this year.
Though Kenny Vaccaro of Texas is considered the draft's best safety prospect, there are other gems to be had later, especially should they shine at the combine.
One for the Ravens to watch is Georgia's Bacarri Rambo, who could be a Ravens target in the late second round. His off-field issues regarding substance abuse will be delved into heavily during the combine's interview process, but if he can impress the Ravens and convince them his checkered past is behind him, he could be a solid addition.
Fresno State's Phillip Thomas could be available to Baltimore in Rounds 3 or 4 and carries none of the off-field baggage of Rambo yet possesses nearly as much upside.
Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien was impressive in the Senior Bowl, displaying the ability to hit hard and work well in coverage against receivers and tight ends. Scouting reports on him make him sound like he's firmly in the Reed mold, but his small-school pedigree means the combine will be incredibly important for him.