2013 NFL Draft: Baltimore Ravens' 5 Biggest Needs Heading into April's Draft

Zachary KruegerCorrespondent IIMarch 26, 2013

2013 NFL Draft: Baltimore Ravens' 5 Biggest Needs Heading into April's Draft

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    The Baltimore Ravens carried out, "Ray's last ride" to an unprecedented championship run this year that ended at Super Bowl XLVII.  

    Joe Flacco finally hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after several doubters and experts thought he couldn't get it done.  

    Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset of retirement, along with center Matt Birk.  The Ravens held a parade in Baltimore the Tuesday after they won, and the fans had the opportunity to rejoice with all their favorite players in being world champions.  

    Unfortunately for the fans of Baltimore, most of the players they celebrated the victory with have left town.  Bigger contracts and greater opportunities came knocking for some of Baltimore's key free agents.  

    Players such as Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Ed Reed have all found new homes for next season.  Fans knew going into free agency that some of these players may not return for next season, but that isn't what has fans concerned.

    What has fans concerned is the releasing and trading of players that fans thought were locks to start the 2013 season in a Ravens uniform.

    Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick after he and the Ravens failed to come to agreements on a restructured deal.  Bernard Pollard became a cap casualty when the Ravens cut him to free up additional cap space.  

    The Ravens did not watch all of free agency go by without making any signings.  The Ravens first signed veteran defensive tackle Chris Canty.  Shortly after signing Canty, the Ravens reached a contract agreement with defensive end Marcus Spears.  

    Of these signings, the most notable one for Baltimore was defensive end/outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who recently signed with the Ravens, coming to terms on a five-year, $35 million deal.  

    While the Ravens have addressed a few holes in the roster that has been viciously dismantled, there are still several spots that need to be filled.  In typical Ravens fashion, Ozzie Newsome will likely look to the draft for mid- to late-round gems to fill those spots.  

    Let's take a look at the Ravens' five biggest needs heading into the 2013 NFL draft.

Middle Linebacker

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    Knowing that Ray Lewis was going to retire at the end of the 2012 season, the Ravens thought they had found their replacement for Lewis in their young five-year pro Dannell Ellerbe.  That was until the Miami Dolphins came calling.

    On the first day of free agency, news broke that the Miami Dolphins had agreed to a five-year, $35 million contract with Ellerbe.  The one-time undrafted rookie free agent, who made the Ravens as a walk-on in 2009 recorded his best season in 2012, was second on the Ravens with 92 tackles while also recording 4.5 sacks in just 13 regular-season games.

    With the loss of Lewis and Ellerbe, the Ravens' middle linebacker corps currently consists of Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain.  

    Ayanbadejo, who has made his name as a special teams contributor, will continue to serve primarily in that role.  McClain, on the other hand, had a solid season in 2012 and could prove to be a formidable replacement for Lewis and Ellerbe, provided that he comes back healthy from last season's injury.

    McClain played 13 games for the Ravens last season before being placed on the disabled list with a spinal contusion.  It is unknown when McClain could be healthy enough to return to the field, but even if healthy, the Ravens will definitely be addressing the need at middle linebacker in the draft.

Free Safety

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    In case you missed it earlier this season, Ravens safety Ed Reed took a real liking to the song "Two Tickets to Paradise" while the Ravens were making their Super Bowl run.  

    Little did some Ravens fans know that Ed Reed would be writing an encore titled, "Two Tickets to Houston," this offseason, because that's just where the 12-year veteran has landed this free-agency period.

    The 34-year old safety has been, and to some still is, regarded as one of the top safeties in the NFL.  One person who certainly doesn't doubt Reed's ability on the field is New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is never short on words when it comes to the Ravens safety.

    The Ravens currently have one free safety on their roster in now-second-year pro Christian Thompson.  Thompson, who was drafted by the Ravens in the fourth round of last year's draft, saw limited action for the Ravens, playing in only seven games.

    If there is any slight comfort to be found for Ravens fans with Thompson being on the roster it could be that Ed Reed mentored him a few months prior to the draft.  

    Having not signed a free-agent safety this offseason, look for the Ravens to pursue a free safety to compete for the starting role in 2013.

Wide Receiver

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    If the Ravens had more depth at the safety position, I would likely have prioritized their need for a wide receiver over their need for a free safety.  That being said, the Ravens' need for a wide receiver remains a big one.

    Behind Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, the Ravens wide receiver corps is full of unproven players.  The man who appears to be next in line to step up for the Ravens is likely Tandon Doss. Other unknown names on Baltimore's roster—like Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, LaQuan Williams and David Reed—remain options, but not favorites to replace Anquan Boldin.  

    If there is one problem I have with the Ravens and their drafting ability, it is their inability to draft productive wide receivers.  In his short career with the Ravens, Torrey Smith has already established himself as the best wide receiver the Ravens have ever drafted.

    While I would like to believe that somewhere on the Ravens' roster is another wide receiver who can effectively fill the void left by the trade of Anquan Boldin, history has shown that the Ravens tend to miss more than hit on wide receivers they take in the draft.  

    However, in a draft that has great depth at wide receiver, the Ravens may be able to reverse their past misfortunes in the wide receiver draft pool with a solid pick this season.

Left Tackle

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    In what has now become a quarterback-driven league, protecting the man under center has gone from a high priority to one of the greatest priorities of any team in the league.

    Protecting your quarterback is even more important if he is the highest-paid player in NFL history, like Joe Flacco became this offseason.

    Last year's left tackle, Bryant McKinnie, is currently a free agent, but he does not appear to be on Baltimore's radar for a 2013 return.  Similar to the situation at wide receiver, the Ravens have a few unproven players who could wind up protecting Flacco's blind side when Week 1 approaches.

    Former first-round draft pick Michael Oher tried his luck at left tackle during the 2010 season but struggled mightily at times to protect Flacco, prompting the signing of McKinnie at the start of the 2011 season.

    Offensive linemen Ramon Harewood and Jah Reid could be asked to fill the void at left tackle if the Ravens opt to not re-sign McKinnie or draft a left tackle.  

    While I don't expect the Ravens to use a first-round pick on a left tackle, I would not be surprised to see the Ravens pick a left tackle at some point in the draft as either an immediate replacement or a project player for the near future.  

Strong Safety

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    Bernard Pollard played every bit the role as an enforcer during his time with the Ravens.  The eight-year veteran posted solid numbers for the Ravens in 2012, acting almost as a linebacker coming out of the secondary.

    Pollard recorded 98 tackles for the Ravens this past season, to go with two sacks and one interception in 13 games.  Another key part of Pollard's game is his toughness.  It was reported after the Super Bowl that Pollard played with six broken ribs for the majority of the season, yet he barely missed a beat.

    The Ravens elected to cut Pollard this offseason to save an estimated $1 million in salary-cap space.  

    The likely replacement for Pollard is seven-year veteran James Ihedigbo.  Ihedigbo signed a one-year contract with the Ravens recently; however, it remains unknown whether he will serve as a free safety or strong safety for the Ravens.

    Because of the uncertainty of where Ihedigbo could play for the Ravens in 2013, the Ravens could likely draft a strong safety to replace Pollard should they opt to not take a free safety.