After a whirlwind first week of NFL free agency, the dust has settled for the Baltimore Ravens and the silence is eerie. Baltimore made five major signings, but general manager Ozzie Newsome is far from done tinkering with the roster. This comprehensive offseason guide should give you a good idea of the state of the Ravens and what moves may be on the horizon.
In Part 1 of this offseason preview, we’re going to go through three of the Ravens’ biggest needs—in order of importance—and break down:
- the current situation of the position
- possible solutions on the open market
- potential draft-day targets
- predictions for how Ozzie Newsome will address the need
Part 2 will focus on the less glaring needs—the positions where the Ravens are set with starters but could benefit by bringing in competition or added depth—and will be published later this week.
Before we focus on hypothetical additions, let’s take a second to evaluate the roster:
|Depth Chart - Offense|
|QB||Joe Flacco||Tyrod Taylor|
|RB||Ray Rice||Bernard Pierce|
|WR||Torrey Smith||Jacoby Jones||Deonte Thompson|
|WR||Steve Smith||Marlon Brown||Aaron Mellette|
|TE||Dennis Pitta||Matt Furstenburg|
|LG||Kelechi Osemele||Ryan Jensen|
|C||Jeremy Zuttah||Gino Gradkowski||A.Q. Shipley|
|RT||Rick Wagner||Jah Reid|
|Depth Chart - Defense|
|NT||Haloti Ngata||Brandon Williams|
|DE||DeAngelo Tyson||Kapron Lewis-Morre|
|OLB||Terrell Suggs||Pernell McPhee||John Simon|
|ILB||Daryl Smith||Albert McClellan|
|ILB||Arthur Brown||Josh Bynes|
|OLB||Courtney Upshaw||Elvis Dumervil|
|CB||Lardarius Webb||Chykie Brown|
|CB||Jimmy Smith||Asa Jackson|
|FS||Omar Brown||Darian Stewart||Anthony Levine|
|SS||Matt Elam||Jeromy Miles||Brynden Trawick|
You can judge the strengths and weakness of that depth chart for yourself, but here are the biggest holes the Ravens need to fill—and how they may accomplish that feat.
1. Free Safety
At beginning of the offseason, Ozzie Newsome said “I think we need to have a more athletic safety in the defense,” per Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com. That is the biggest need he hasn’t addressed to this point.
With Matt Elam shifting to his more natural position of strong safety in his sophomore campaign, there is a gigantic void on the back line of the Ravens defense.
I’ve listed Omar Brown as No. 1 on the depth chart, but there’s no clear-cut starter and—more alarmingly—there is no player the Ravens should trust to start in Week 1 of the 2014 season.
Possible Free-Agent Targets
There were a number of playmaking coverage safeties on the market to start the offseason (like Louis Delmas and Jairus Byrd), but the Ravens chose not to strike at that moment and now there are only a few reliable options left on the market.
Thomas DeCoud was released by the Atlanta Falcons, so he wouldn’t count against the compensatory pick count that Newsome so adores. Moreover, he went to the Pro Bowl in 2012, so you know he can play.
In addition there’s Chris Clemons—an unrestricted free agent with underrated coverage skills.
Those are the only real free safety options that could take over as the starter, but there are also a couple of veteran cornerbacks (Champ Bailey, Rashean Mathis and Asante Samuel) that could be ready for a change positions as they shift to the last chapter of their professional careers.
Potential Draft Targets
It would be somewhat risky for the Ravens to roll into the 2014 with two starting safeties with only one total year of professional experience combined, but drafting another safety in the first couple rounds would give Baltimore the foundation of a dominant secondary.
In the first round, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville) will both be possibilities who offer very different skills.
Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel breaks down their differences well:
Two safeties rise above the rest in this draft class. In one corner, there's the dizzying Pryor. He leaves behind welts and bruises. In the other, there's Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He's the technician. He touts the NFL-ready Nick Saban defensive system.
In addition there is another prospect flying under the radar due to his small frame and concerns about the level of competition he faced at Northern Illinois: Jimmie Ward. Despite those questions, many scouts—like former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah—have been impressed with his coverage skills:
Those three are the only sure bets in this draft that could start from Day 1.
Prediction: Ravens use draft to form dynamic young safety duo
Despite the fact that having two inexperienced safeties is sure to result in some blown coverages and growing pains, drafting a safety seems to be the route the Ravens are leaning toward at this point.
Obviously, Newsome isn’t going to reach for a safety at any point, but his lack of movement on the open market—signing Darian Stewart doesn’t exactly count—indicates that Baltimore wants to see how the draft unfolds before adding a veteran.
If the Ravens do indeed draft a safety, my pick would be Jimmie Ward in Round 2.
2. Right Tackle
Since Kelechi Osemele performed better at left guard than right tackle, he’s listed as a guard in the above depth chart; that leaves a hole on the right side of the O-line. For that reason, we will move forward with the assumption that right tackle is a position of need. But it’s important to remember that the Ravens have the option of moving Osemele back to right tackle, which would make left guard the position of need.
With that complicated and convoluted caveat out of the way, let’s move on.
The coaching staff likes Rick Wagner, and he’ll have every chance to earn the starting job, according to head coach John Harbaugh. But the fifth-round pick is in his second year, so let’s not set the bar too high for the young tackle.
Jah Reid is a possible option, but he’s spent most of his time at guard and would appear to be behind Wagner on the depth chart at this point, so he too is a long shot to start.
Possible Free-Agent Targets
There aren’t many options on the market, and Eric Winston is clearly the best of them all. He thrived in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme for Houston, making a name for himself as one of the best right tackles in the league.
It’s been all downhill since leaving the Texans, but perhaps a reunion would get him back to his previous form. He won’t cost much, as he hasn’t generated much interest on the market this year or last summer when he was a free agent.
Other options include an aging Tyson Clabo, an underwhelming David Stewart and a Bryant McKinnie that’s willing to play right tackle.
Potential Draft Targets
The position is fairly deep in this draft, and the Ravens may have the good fortune of a top-notch prospect falling to them at 17. Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews will definitely be off the board, but it’s plausible that Taylor Lewan (Michigan) will fall slightly due to his recent off-field legal problems.
If that occurs, the Ravens would gleefully select the nasty run-blocker who proved at the combine that he is a blue-chip prospect, belonging in the conversation with the top two tackles in this class.
Another more likely scenario in the first round is that the Ravens select Zack Martin (Notre Dame). NFL media analyst Charley Casserly has Martin going to Baltimore in his latest mock draft, and here’s his reasoning:
I like him as a technician. He can slide his feet and plays the run equally well as the pass. To me, he's a better prospect than Jordan Pugh, who started for the Giants last year. If you're going to run Gary Kubiak's scheme, where you need athletic tackles to cut block on the backside, Zack Martin would be the better fit.
Some second-round targets include Morgan Moses (Virginia), Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) and Ja’Wuan James (Tennessee)—all of whom could walk into the Castle and be the starter.
Prediction: Baltimore turns to draft to upgrade O-line
Once again, the Ravens will use the draft to address their need. Eric Winston hasn’t generated much interest on the market, so he will likely be available after the draft if the Ravens aren’t happy with the tackles available.
The most likely outcome is that Newsome drafts Zack Martin in the first round. The Notre Dame product possesses the versatility that the Ravens covet in their linemen, and will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player wherever he slots into the offensive line.
3. Tight End
The Ravens re-signed Dennis Pitta—the unquestioned starter—but there is practically no depth behind him. Last year’s undrafted rookie Matt Furstenburg is a promising developmental piece, but he won’t be ready to step in as such a big part of the offense just yet. He has no experience in game situations and needs work both as a blocker and as a receiver.
This lack of depth is problematic for two reasons. First, it limits the Ravens’ ability to use any kind of two-TE sets—a big part of Gary Kubiak’s offense. Second, while Pitta is an excellent receiving threat, he brings next to nothing in the way of blocking.
A tight end that can block well is a big part of a successful running game, and Newsome needs to add one to help get the ground game back on track.
Possible Free Agents
There aren’t many tight ends on the market that are really worth Baltimore’s time, but one to keep an eye on is Ben Hartsock. ProFootballFocus (subscription required) rated him as the best blocking tight end in the league last year, and he would add toughness and physicality to the Ravens' rushing attack.
Hartsock wouldn’t bring much in the way of pass-catching, but he’d be a valuable contributor and role player for Baltimore.
Additionally, the Ravens have also reached out to Ed Dickson, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun. That might not be music to the ears of Ravens nation, but he’s only 26 years old and has shown the ability to be a solid contributor for this team before.
Potential Draft Targets
There are a couple of highly regarded tight ends in this draft, but the talent starts to drop off after the top prospects go off the board. If a player like Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) or Troy Niklas (Notre Dame) falls to the third round, the Ravens would have to strongly consider pulling, the trigger but both are considered second-round picks.
The more likely players that will be available for Baltimore to consider are C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa) and Arthur Lynch (Georgia) in Rounds 4 and 5. Both have limited upside as receivers, but are solid blocking options with the skills to be a red-zone and short-yardage threat.
If the Ravens wait until the later rounds, there are prospects like Crockett Gilmore (Colorado State) and Jordan Navjar (Baylor) that have intriguing potential as all-around tight ends.
Prediction: Baltimore re-signs Dickson and takes a flier on a late-round prospect
Dickson was uninspiring last year, but he’s very familiar with the coaching staff and team and he can be a fairly effective receiver if he can get over the severe case of drops he suffered from in 2013. He has more athleticism than Pitta, and at 26 he still has plenty of room to grow. He isn’t a very good blocker, but he is still much better than Pitta in that regard.
Even after re-signing Dickson, it wouldn’t hurt to add another young tight end to the roster—especially with Gary Kubiak running the offense. Crockett Gilmore impressed at both the Shrine game and the Senior Bowl with his ability to get open in the middle of the field and make plays after the catch. He would be a promising addition to the roster and could be had as late as the fifth or sixth round.
That brings us to the end of this first look at the state of the Ravens, but later in the week I’ll look at how Newsome will resolve roster deficiencies at defensive end (to replace Arthur Jones), cornerback (to replace Corey Graham), wide receiver and running back.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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