10 NFL Draft Prospects Rising Up the Baltimore Ravens' Big Board

Mike FastContributor IMarch 20, 2013

10 NFL Draft Prospects Rising Up the Baltimore Ravens' Big Board

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    Since free agency began on March 12, the Baltimore Ravens saw three of their defensive starters sign elsewhere and also cut strong safety Bernard Pollard (effective on June 1). Dannell Ellerbe (Miami, five years), Paul Kruger (Cleveland, five years) and Cary Williams (Philadelphia, three years) signed with their respective teams for a total of $92.75 million.

    Baltimore did sign two former NFC East defensive linemen who will likely play significant minutes for the team, if not start. Defensive end Marcus Spears (two years, from Dallas) and defensive tackle Chris Canty (three years, from New York) signed contracts with a combined worth of $11.55 million.

    So for 12.5 percent of what Ellerbe, Kruger and Williams cost, the Ravens signed two veterans to bolster their defensive line and made significant progress toward solving a major need.

    While Baltimore also retained multiple other free agents, it will do its most work through the draft.

    Ravens general manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome has traditionally taken the best player available regardless of need and stayed true to his board. League-wide, Newsome is highly respected for his front-office talent and has proved year after year that he knows what he's doing.

    The question every fan wants to know is: "Who's on the Ravens' big board?"

    To be clear, this is not a mock draft. Players are listed according to the alphabetical order of their schools, not who will be drafted the highest. Baltimore may not have the chance to draft all of these players. The players on this list may not even go in the first round.

    Instead, this is a list of 10 players whose stock is trending up that the Ravens may look at drafting in late April.

Jesse Williams, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

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    Jesse Williams fits a big need for the Ravens and their style of defense. While he's listed as a defensive tackle, Williams flourished in Tuscaloosa as a true nose tackle in Kirby Smart's 3-4 base defense.

    The Australian native can fit right in with the Ravens by controlling the all-important point of attack. He's able to line up as a defensive end in the 3-4 but is best suited to play inside.

    Williams ran a 4.84-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is exceptional for someone his size (6'4", 325 pounds). He also benched 225 pounds 30 times, which is the highest amount of reps by any Crimson Tide player.

    Williams excelled in the premier football program in the nation and doesn't have any injury, off-field or personality issues to speak of. As the draft process nears its end, the value of character will become more important and more apparent.

    Expect the Ravens to have Williams very high on their draft board.

Barrett Jones, Center, Alabama

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    There may not be a more accomplished offensive lineman in college football history than Barrett Jones. He's won three national championships playing three different positions.

    In 2009 as a freshman, Jones helped Alabama win the national title while playing right guard. In 2011, Alabama won the title with Jones playing left tackle. Last season, Jones captained the Crimson Tide offensive line as a center and led Alabama to its third national title in four years.

    Not only did he play those positions, he was the best player at those positions. Two years ago, Jones won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman. Last year, he won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center.

    Obviously he's versatile and experienced. Perhaps Jones' best attributes are his intelligence and leadership. While the Ravens offensive line played very well in the playoffs, they did lose center Matt Birk and are still unsure about who will be the left tackle in Week 1 of the 2013 season.

    Drafting Jones involves barely any risk. He's currently recovering from a left foot injury but still managed to bench 225 pounds 27 times at the Alabama pro day.

    Jones did say he'd play wherever he was asked to play, but if he had to choose, he'd pick the center position.

    If you made me choose I’d probably choose center right now because No. 1, I played there last year and No. 2, I’m kind of a control freak. I like to be in control...That’s the kind of guy I am. I like making the calls. I like the preparation aspect of it.

Matt Elam, Free Safety, Florida

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    In 2012, Matt Elam made 76 tackles, collected four interceptions, defended five passes and recorded two sacks. His 40 time (4.54 seconds) and vertical leap (35.5") impressed, while his bench reps (17) were more average.

    Make no mistake, thought: There is nothing average about Elam's performance on the field. He's a big-time hitter from a big-time program who makes others around him better.

    The factors that set Elam apart from other safeties in this draft are his instinct and passion for the game. While he's not the perfect player, he's a well-rounded one. Elam has a little bit of cornerback in him, kind of like Charles Woodson.

    Woodson is better in coverage and more consistent than Elam, but Elam is a bigger hitter. Both are ball hawks, can be a force at the line of scrimmage and can fire their team up when the game is on the line.

    The Ravens may be able to get Elam in the second round and will very likely be able to select him in the first round, if they choose to do so.

John Cyprien, Free Safety, Florida International

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    At the Florida International pro day, John Cyprien ran his 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds. His vertical leap measured 38.5", and his broad jump was 9'11".

    For a 6'1", 208-pound safety, those are very good numbers. However, when you think of players from the Sun Belt, you generally don't think they're as good as players from the SEC or the Big 12.

    In this case, that's not true.

    Cyprien is a freak who is particularly effective at the line of scrimmage and against the run. To say he's a hard hitter and strong tackler would be an understatement.

    It would be a slight surprise if Cyprien didn't go in the first round. He could very well be on the board at No. 32, if the Ravens want to pick him.

    Even if they wanted to trade up, Cyprien looks like a good investment.

    If you've followed the Ravens' activity over the last two weeks, you know they need help in the back end of their defense. Their current cornerbacks are excellent in coverage, but losing Bernard Pollard is going to be a big loss as he was a Jack Tatum-like enforcer (just ask Stevan Ridley).

    Cyprien may not be Pollard yet, but signs point to him being that type of player in the not-too-distant future.

Arthur Brown, Inside Linebacker, Kansas State

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    Tell Arthur Brown he's too small, and he will show you his game tape.

    In the NFL, performance matters much more than measurables. Brown is a versatile linebacker but may play inside in the NFL (depending on which team drafts him) to best utilize his leadership and diverse skill set.

    At his pro day, Brown ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash, benched 225 pounds 21 times and had a vertical leap of 32.5". Again, the measurables were average, but the tape doesn't lie.

    Similar to Jesse Williams, Brown is a hard-nosed, talented player who doesn't get the acclaim he merits. He's not the best defender in the nation, but he's among the best linebackers in this draft.

    Considering how the Ravens are devoid of depth at linebacker and welcome players that others disrespect, Brown would fit very well in Baltimore.

Johnathan Hankins, Defensive Tackle, Ohio State

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    The Buckeyes went 12-0 in 2012, thanks in large part to No. 52, Johnathan Hankins.

    At 6'3" and 320 pounds, Hankins is among the very best defensive lineman prospects in this very deep defensive lineman draft.

    Hankins played great football on a team that would have been in the BCS National Championship Game if not for the NCAA sanctions levied against it. He's extremely strong and doesn't get enough credit for his quickness and athleticism.

    Although the Ravens signed Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, they are not long-term answers. Hankins, if available, could be a Pro Bowler in the making.

Tony Jefferson, Free Safety, Oklahoma

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    Comparing college football players to NFL players happens frequently but isn't always an accurate or fair exercise.

    While a college football player may dominate a game or season, that doesn't mean he will even make an NFL roster.

    When Tony Jefferson played for the Sooners over the last few years, he played like the late Sean Taylor. While not the athlete Taylor was, Jefferson played similarly to how Taylor played: fast, physical, sideline to sideline and through the whistle. His football IQ and passion for the game are evident.

    Due to a hamstring issue, Jefferson didn't work out at Oklahoma's pro day. And honestly, his combine numbers weren't that good (16 bench press reps of 225 pounds and a 4.75-second 40-yard dash).

    Due to the release of Bernard Pollard and possible loss of Ed Reed in free agency, finding an impact safety is now a major priority for Baltimore.

    Despite average stats, Jefferson deserves a good, hard look from the Ravens. They need a new leader on defense—not that they don't have one now, but they've always had a few at the same time.

    Jefferson could be their man.

Markus Wheaton, Wide Receiver, Oregon State

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    Although the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers, they still have a deep receiving core.

    That doesn't mean they shouldn't at least think about drafting a player like Markus Wheaton.

    Even in a heavily offensive conference like the Pac-12, Wheaton put up big numbers. Last year, he caught 91 passes for 1,244 yards (13.7 yards per reception) and 11 touchdowns. In 2012, Wheaton also rushed 20 times for 142 yards (7.1 yards per rush) and two touchdowns.

    While Wheaton didn't run a 40-yard dash at his pro day, his previously recorded 40-yard dash was clocked at 4.45 seconds.

    What are most impressive are those "other" stats. Wheaton benched 225 pounds 20 times, had a vertical leap of 37" and had a broad jump of 10'0".

    People already knew he was fast. Wheaton boosted his draft stock by showing his strength and explosive athleticism in multiple drills.

    Boldin was a very good slot receiver, partly because he was really quick and really strong.

    Wheaton plays the same way.

Kawann Short, Defensive Tackle, Purdue

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    Kawann Short was unable to participate in Purdue's pro day due to a hamstring injury but plans to work out on March 26.

    It's safe to say scouts and coaches are eagerly awaiting Short's performance.

    He has great size (6'3") and maturity (two-time team captain), and at only 308 pounds, he's able to rush the passer and defeat blocks with different types of moves.

    Perhaps Short's biggest physical asset is his 34-3/4" arms, which allow him to keep blockers at bay, read the running back, corral the ball-carrier and disrupt passing lanes.

    While he's a playmaker, he'll have to learn how to make plays consistently. Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks is quite capable of taking a good player and making him a great one.

    Short is a first-round talent but may drop to the second round because of the depth of defensive linemen in this draft.

Vance McDonald, Tight End, Rice

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    If the Ravens were to draft a tight end, it wouldn't likely be until the third round or so. They don't need one right now, as they just signed restricted free agents Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

    But as Ozzie Newsome has always done, if a player is available who could help the Ravens win, even if that player's position isn't needed at the time, Newsome will draft him.

    Vance McDonald doesn't get a lot of press. After Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) and Zach Ertz (Stanford), McDonald is in the next wave of tight ends.

    Although he didn't run the 40-yard dash at his pro day, league scouts shouldn't be worried. McDonald measured 6'6", 268 pounds and benched 225 pounds 31 times. He played in the slot often at Rice and is an athletic mover.

    Just like the current Ravens tight ends.

    Sure, there are other needs, but a guy like McDonald who doesn't have much downside and is still figuring out the different ways he can beat a defense is probably going to be selected on Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) of the draft.

    His NFL.com pro comparison: Todd Heap.