Showcasing Baltimore Ravens' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
The process of winning back-to-back titles has been underway for awhile now, and continues at the draft.
Like most defending champions, the holes that need to be filled are limited for Baltimore, at least in comparison to those franchises drafting in the top 10. There are still a couple issues that must get addressed to keep the team among the top contenders, though.
One thing that will be missing—which the draft can't replace—is the veteran leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
The two stalwart defenders are gone, to retirement and the Houston Texans, respectively, which means players like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata must step up in their absence.
The Ravens must trust those stars, along with Joe Flacco, to handle the increased pressure while focusing on ways to upgrade in the draft.
Let's examine every area of the team and determine where their pick resources will be best allocated starting on Thursday.
Baltimore did what it needed to do with Joe Flacco.
So the Ravens locked him up with a long-term contract extension early in the offseason.
They will expect improved play during the season for their large investment. But if he can bring another title or two to town during his new deal, the regular season will remain a secondary concern.
Obviously, he will maintain his spot atop the depth chart barring injury.
Behind him are a couple of unproven options in Tyrod Taylor and Caleb Hanie. Finding a new backup in the draft might be on the agenda next season, but it's not worth using a pick on one in this year's weak class.
Ray Rice continues to handle the workhorse role for the Ravens without showing any signs of slowing down.
He topped 1,600 total yards for the fourth straight season while also chipping in 10 touchdowns to lead the team's offensive charge.
The best thing about Rice is that he's built like a truck.
So he's capable of handling these heavy workloads without fading like some of the elusive backs do. Until he shows clear signs of wear and tear, the Ravens can feel confident in the running game.
Backup Bernard Pierce received limited action as a rookie, but did average nearly five yards per carry. He showed enough for Baltimore to avoid using anything more than a flier pick on a running back in the later rounds.
They have enough talent as the position to stand pat.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Now we begin to enter areas where the Ravens could use some fresh faces.
Torrey Smith possesses the big-play ability to serve as the team's top target, but there are a lot of question marks behind him in the passing game.
Anquan Boldin was an ideal fit on the opposite side, but he was shipped off to the San Francisco 49ers.
As for players still on the roster, Jacoby Jones is better served in a limited role while the tight end duo of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are both best off in complementary roles, as well.
Depending on how the draft falls, the Ravens could address the issue in Round 1.
More likely, they will use multiple picks starting in Round 2 on wideouts. Quinton Patton and Terrance Williams are good options in the second round.
Aaron Mellette is a nice sleeper for the middle rounds.
One of the underrated elements of Baltimore's playoff run was the improved play from the offensive line.
Flacco was sacked more than twice per game on average during the regular season. He was taken down just six times in the postseason.
Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens sixth in run blocking and 14th in pass protection.
The biggest loss was center Matt Birk, who retired.
So the team will probably try to address that position relatively early, perhaps with Barrett Jones in the third round. Everything else along the line will be pure depth selections in the late rounds, where the Ravens own plenty of picks.
Haloti Ngata is an absolute monster.
Although his numbers may seem mundane (51 tackles and five sacks), the amount of pressure he puts on an opposing offensive line is vital to the defense's success. He also showed off some impressive versatility by playing different roles last season.
The Ravens should also be strong on the ends.
Arthur Jones made tremendous strides last season when given more playing time and still has plenty of upside. The addition of Chris Canty will allow Ngata to play his more natural role of nose tackle.
While the starting three is already solidified, depth could be an issue on the edge. So don't be surprised if the Ravens use a couple of those middle-round picks on ends.
Lavar Edwards and Malliciah Goodman would be good fits for the system.
Here's the area where the Ravens should use their first-round selection, which is last in the round following the Super Bowl victory.
The retirement of Lewis leaves a major hole in the middle of the defense that must get addressed before training camp.
There are three viable options available.
Manti Te'o has watched his stock fluctuate after some lackluster combine results, but is still the top natural inside backer on the board. Kevin Minter is another option. They could also select a versatile prospect like Alec Ogletree and play him in the middle.
Ultimately, if Te'o is there, they should take him.
Otherwise it's a toss-up between Minter and Ogletree. Either one would work to fill the inside void.
On the outside, they should be all set thanks to the tandem of Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who replaces Paul Kruger.
Reed, who used his top-notch ball hawking skills to lead the secondary for a decade, is gone. But the Ravens did a nice job to replace him right away by signing Michael Huff.
They could still use a strong safety to pair with him, though.
James Ihedigbo will probably get the first crack after playing a limited role throughout his career. It wouldn't hurt to bring in some competition through the draft. Notre Dame's Zeke Motta could be a nice target late in the draft.
Baltimore is in better shape at corner.
The trio of Corey Graham, Lardarius Webb and 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith should help the Ravens improve on last season's middle-of-the-pack ranking against the pass.
Any corner selections will be for depth and special teams purposes.
Justin Tucker had a solid debut season in Baltimore. He connected on more than 90 percent of his field goal attempts, including all four from 50 yards and beyond.
The 23-year-old kicker should be in line for a long stay with the Ravens.
His efficiency was matched by punter Sam Koch. The longtime Raven ranked eighth in net punting and pinned opponents inside the 20 a total of 28 times. Those type of numbers are exactly what Baltimore has come to expect from one of the position's most reliable players.
In terms of the return game, Jacoby Jones should continue to handle the bulk of the work.
If he's forced to take on a bigger offensive role, however, the workload could become an issue. So getting a couple wide receivers in the draft so he can handle returns, is key.