Previewing What the Baltimore Ravens Will Be Looking for at the Scouting Combine
The Baltimore Ravens are widely regarded as one of the best teams when it comes to nailing the NFL Draft, and the premier event in the buildup to draft day is the NFL Scouting Combine, which will take place in Indianapolis from Feb. 22 to 25. General manager Ozzie Newsome—like all other GMs—has a list of things that he’ll be intensely focused on during the showcase.
A prospect’s performance during the college season is the biggest factor in his draft grade, but the NFL is composed of some of the best athletes in the world. For a young player to make an impact and possess staying power at the next level, he needs to boast enough speed, strength and agility to match up with his peers.
The most anticipated event of the combine is the 40-yard dash and other events that give us a player’s measurables. But don’t discount the value of the positional drills that are designed to test the most important skills necessary to play any position.
These are some of the positions and drills the Ravens' scouting department will be watching in Indianapolis.
Note: For videos breaking down each drill, check out NFL.com’s official Combine page
Wide Receivers: Hands
There is no area of need more critical to the Ravens’ 2014 season than the wide receiver position—which is pretty fortunate given the impressive depth of this draft’s wide receiver class.
Starting-caliber wideouts will be on the board into the second and maybe even third-round of the draft but such a glut of receiving talent puts pressure on the scouts.
With so many enticing prospects, the Ravens need to select the right one whenever they’re on the clock. All of the hype surrounding receiver prospects revolves around their athleticism, which means that the 40-yard dash and vertical jump will be critical parts of the evaluation process.
But the Ravens won’t pay as much attention to those track events as you might think. Sure, having elite athleticism would be a nice bonus, but they already have plenty of speed on the roster (with the likes of Torrey Smith, Deonte Thompson and Jacoby Jones if he’s re-signed).
Instead, Ozzie Newsome indicated to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com that he’s looking for “a receiver—whether it’s a tight end or a wide receiver—that can make a third-and-7, third-and-8 catch and run some after the catch.”
What’s the most important skill for a wide receiver? At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s the ability to catch the football. With that in mind, you can be sure that the Baltimore staff will be focusing on the gauntlet drill, where a receiver sprints across the width of the field with five quarterbacks throwing him passes from both sides along the way.
Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com notes that “it tests balance, hand-eye coordination and playing speed. It's also a fast-paced gauge of a receiver's ability to react and doesn't allow players to hide their deficiencies.”
The gauntlet drill reveals whether players have natural hands and showcases their hand-eye coordination and ability (or inability) to pluck the ball out of the air while moving at full speed.
Offensive Tackles: Quickness and Foot Speed
Right up there with the wide receiver position is offensive tackle with both of last year’s starters heading into unrestricted free agency this offseason. Obviously, strength will be critical for any offensive tackle prospect because all of your skills mean nothing if you can’t go toe-to-toe against the defensive player lining up opposite you.
Nevertheless, the scouting staff will be focusing on the tackles’ foot speed and agility just as much—if not more—than the bench press.
The best drill to evaluate those traits is the kick-slide drill.
The kick-slide is the foundation of offensive line play and a tackle’s ability to mirror and wall off defenders is the most important part of playing the position.
The hiring of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator means that the Ravens will be shifting to even more zone blocking, which places an emphasis on athleticism and quickness over brute strength.
Interior Offensive Linemen: Size & Strength
Watching the 2013 Ravens, you couldn’t help but notice that some of the offensive linemen were simply too small. Center Gino Gradkowski and fill-in left guard A.Q. Shipley are both undersized, and it showed en route to ProFootballFocus grades of -18.1 for both of them on the season (subscription required).
As discussed before, brute strength isn’t the most important factor in the zone-blocking scheme, but both Shipley and Gradkowski were frequently overpowered by interior defensive linemen which blew up plays before they had even started.
Even Ozzie Newsome admitted as much in his end-of-year press conference, specifically stating that the Ravens have “got to get bigger in the interior of our offensive line.”
It’s unlikely that Baltimore spends an early pick on a guard or center, but it would be unsurprising for them to add a project later in the draft with the size to move defenders off the spot and anchor the O-line.
Defensive Linemen: Strength
There is plenty of work to be done on the offensive side of the football, but don’t sleep on the defensive line as an area where an upgrade is necessary—especially if Arthur Jones moves on like everybody expects him to, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated.
Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun said it best:
For a team that prides itself on playing physical football and winning the battles along the line of scrimmage, the defensive line certainly can’t be ignored.
Arthur Jones was Baltimore’s best defensive lineman last year, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), and the Ravens will sorely miss his ability to stand up against the run while generating pressure on the quarterback.
There are a number of young players on the roster that will be relied upon to step up in Jones’ absence (like DeAngelo Tyson, Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore), but the Ravens won’t pass on a high-level defensive lineman if he’s available in the middle rounds.
The most important aspect for such a prospect would be the ability to overpower offensive linemen and shut down the run. As Vensel pointed out, the Ravens defense is based around stopping the run and getting physically dominant players for the defensive rotation is important to that goal.
Free Safeties: Speed, Range and Overall Athleticism
Another position that Ozzie Newsome specifically highlighted as an offseason need was free safety, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com.
Newsome discussed his desire to add an athletic, rangy, ball-hawking free safety that could cover a lot of ground as a single-high safety and intercept passes.
Keeping that in mind, you can be certain that plenty of scouts will be on hand to watch the speed-turn drill.
In this drill, the defensive back starts at the line of scrimmage and begins the drill in a backpedal. Then, he bursts forward (as if reacting to a double-move). After that, he has to quickly turn his hips, sprint back downfield and locate the football to finish the drill.
The speed-turn drill focuses on the most important skills that the Ravens are looking for in their free safety: functional speed, agility, recovery speed and ball skills.
Cornerbacks: Size, Strength and Press Coverage Ability
Based on the media coverage surrounding Richard Sherman leading up to the Super Bowl, you would think that all he does is memorable post-game interviews. But Sherman is the best cornerback in the league and his emergence has teams looking for cornerbacks in his mold.
That means big, long corners with the strength to jam receivers off the line of scrimmage and the ball skills to disrupt plays.
The days of the smaller, lightning quick cornerbacks are over, as the big, physical cornerback is the new trend.
Baltimore already has one of them in Jimmy Smith, and cornerback won’t be a big need if Corey Graham is re-signed.
That said, you can never have enough cornerbacks and it would behoove Baltimore to draft a physically imposing defensive back as a long-term project.
The aforementioned speed-turn drill will be important for these prospects, but not as important as their God-given traits: size, length and strength.
Tight Ends: Strength, Blocking Ability, Speed and Hands
Tight end will be a very interesting position to scout for the Ravens since they will likely be looking for two different types of players.
Firstly, they have to scout a No. 2 tight end if they assume Dennis Pitta re-signs. Pitta is such a non-existent blocker that the secondary tight end absolutely must be a physical presence who takes pride in his blocking ability (think C.J. Fiedorowicz or Arthur Lynch).
In addition, however, Baltimore has to account for the possibility that they don’t retain Pitta’s services. In that scenario, it’s much more important that the Ravens draft a tight end with the skills to be a dangerous weapon in Joe Flacco’s arsenal.
As such, the Ravens scouts will be closely monitoring everything the tight ends do while juggling both of those profiles in their heads.
Running Backs: 40-Yard Dash
With Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce as the first and second running backs respectively, the Ravens aren’t in dire need of another running back.
As such, you can bet that they’re not going to draft a back early in the draft.
Nevertheless, running backs take a beating and injuries are bound to occur so depth is always a necessity.
Moreover, head coach John Harbaugh has talked about his desire to add niche running backs to the roster per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
I think we need to diversify as much as we can what guys can do. we want to have as many weapons as we can at our disposal. Big backs, fast backs, quick backs, route-running backs that you see around the league, we want to chase all those guys. You can’t always get everything you want, but those are things that we could use.
For any of these situational running backs, the 40-yard dash will be vital. If the Ravens want a home-run hitter like Giovani Bernard, that back will need to run a top-notch 40-yard dash. Additionally, if the Ravens want a bruising back that can power through defenders to convert short-yardage situations, looking at the 10-yard split of a back will be very revealing.