With next week’s NFL draft looming, the Baltimore Ravens can use the process as the springboard for rounding out the potential 53-man roster for the 2014 season.
A few post-June 1 free agent signings that could bring in roster-caliber players will almost surely take place (2013 examples: Daryl Smith, Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley), but overall, Baltimore’s eight picks in this year’s draft will be the last prime opportunity to upgrade an 8-8 roster from a season ago.
In the first round, the Ravens will have plenty of options but with more than one hole to fill, the following seven picks will be just as important to address roster weaknesses.
What are Baltimore’s key priorities heading into the draft?
1. Find a starting free safety – This priority sits at the top because it’s the only position on the roster where the Ravens truly have no starting options. If the season started today, free agent signee Darian Stewart, would be the starter, but he’s ideally a backup in Baltimore’s secondary. Barring any surprises, the Ravens will add another free safety to the roster during draft weekend, preferably one of starting caliber.
That will force the Ravens to address the position early, particularly with one of their four picks in the top 100. First round options are headlined by Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but second-tier options such as Florida State’s Terrence Brooks and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward are worthy starters at the position. Calvin Pryor – a popular choice among fans – could also be an option.
Bottom line: expect at least one new face in the back end of the secondary by draft’s end.
2. Upgrade the right tackle position – A notch below free safety as a priority, because right now, the Ravens could roll with second-year tackle Ricky Wagner as the starter, but that’s not to say they should. Right tackle is the only hole left on the starting offensive line, and the draft provides a chance to find a plug-and-play rookie starter.
In the first round, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan (if available at 17) would be a more than ideal scenario, while a flurry of tackles such as Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, Tennessee’s JuWuan James and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandijo being three of many worthy consolation prizes, with the latter two ideally being post-first round options.
3. Add a running back – Even before the Ray Rice incident, adding another running back to the roster was a given heading into the offseason. In a new offensive scheme with two ailing backs in Rice and Bernard Pierce, the Ravens would benefit from another set of durable, fresh legs.
Baltimore began that process by adding veteran Justin Forsett, but that was just a low-risk signing that shouldn’t affect any draft plans. The Ravens need another cut-and-go runner that can thrive in the (hopefully) improved zone-blocking scheme next season.
With a suspension for Rice looming as a possibility and offseason rotator cuff surgery for Pierce, there shouldn’t be a limit on when the Ravens address the position. Ideal zone runners in this draft who also provide some receiving value include Washington’s Bishop Sankey, West Virginia’s Charles Sims and Towson’s Terrance West.
Want another name to keep an eye on? With his poor combine and off-field issues, James Wilder Jr. out of Florida State could very well go undrafted, but possesses much of the qualities favorable for Baltimore’s run scheme, and would be worth bringing in as a free agent.
4. Add a receiver (or two) – The wide receiver class this year provides a little bit of everything, so regardless of what type of pass catcher the Ravens are looking for, they’ll have plenty of options. While this receiver class is deep, that’s not to say there won’t be a fair share of early-round duds, and given Baltimore’s drafting history at the position, keep expectations tempered if they select a receiver that needs development.
There’s no such thing as a safe pick, but cleaner, more refined prospects offer a better chance of Baltimore not whiffing again at wide receiver. So, maybe less of the Kelvin Benjamin/Martavis Bryant route and more down the Jarvis Landry/Jared Abbrederis road.
Along with receiver, the Ravens would benefit from added quality at tight end. Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels are the only two proven tight ends on the roster, and Daniels is only in Baltimore on a one-year deal. With the Pitta/Daniels combination figuring to be a focus in 2014, adding a high-upside project such as Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas would aid the offense in the future.
5. Improve the talent at cornerback – This could happen in any round, and don’t be surprised if it happens as early as the first. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are penciled in as the starting duo again next season, but the Chykie Brown/Asa Jackson competition for the third cornerback job doesn’t scream “we don’t need to improve this situation.” Brown and Jackson can provide value in spurts, but third corner Corey Graham was on the field for over 700 snaps last season, and neither have proven themselves in that role and odds are they won’t.
If the Ravens can find a starting-caliber cornerback in the early rounds (perhaps Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech or Jason Verrett from TCU?), then the secondary will be in good shape for 2014, and in future years. While Smith is expected to stick around for several years, Webb might not.
6. Find Tyrod Taylor’s successor – This ranks at the bottom of the totem pole only because the Ravens don’t necessarily have to find Taylor’s successor this year, but if there’s a worthy mid-to-late round candidate, expediting the process may be warranted.
Taylor, a free agent after next season, has provided little assurance that he’s the ideal long-term option behind Joe Flacco, and if the Ravens can find a rookie who is just as good or better than Taylor, than his exit could come sooner than later.
A project such as Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas may be of intrigue, or an experienced signal caller like Georgia’s Aaron Murray could be the route Baltimore goes if the team indeed wants to fix the backup quarterback situation in this draft.