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NFL Combine Preview: What are the Ravens looking for?

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It’s finally NFL Scouting Combine week, where the draft process truly kicks into full swing.

The entire combine event doesn’t necessarily provide much in the big picture, particularly the on-field workouts. Most of the drills are used as sorting devices, as opposed to events that raise or lower a prospect’s “stock,” which is an artificial term for the most part.

What may be more important are the off-the-field activities, particularly team interviews. This is the first chance for most NFL teams to meet with underclassmen, and Indianapolis is where coaching staffs and front offices will get their first impression of most prospects.

The Baltimore Ravens have plenty of work to do, as they currently possess four draft picks, with that number likely doubling when compensatory picks are awarded.

Find out who some of the potential targets in Indianapolis are for the Ravens, and the storylines to follow.

Offensive Line

Once free agency starts, the Ravens will be without either a starting left or right tackle, and of course they need an upgrade at the center position. There’s a working assumption that the Ravens can sign Eugene Monroe, but if they don’t, they’ll be in a dire situation.

The primary focus right now, however, is likely on the interior line, where the Ravens could draft both a center and a left guard, depending on where Kelechi Osemele is used next season.

The Ravens have traditionally valued versatile linemen in the draft, and they love their guard/tackle hybrids (See: Osemele, Ricky Wagner, Jah Reid, Ramon Harewood, etc). Two potential first-round prospects that fit the billing are Notre Dame’s Zack Martin and UCLA’s Xavier Su’a Filo.

Martin played left tackle at Notre Dame, but both his strengths and weaknesses may be better suited for guard in the NFL, where his slip-ups in pass protection will be compensated for by the fact that he’ll be playing in a confined space.

Su’a Filo played both guard and tackle for the Bruins, and moves well as a run blocker, making him an ideal guard for Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme.

The decision on where to play Osemele will drastically affect Baltimore’s offensive line draft needs, but Martin and Su’a Filo’s versatility make them targets regardless of where Osemele plays.

Running Back

New offense, new personnel. 2013 was a lost year for both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Throw in the new Gary Kubiak-led offensive scheme, and running back is a likely positional target in this year’s draft.

In the zone-blocking scheme, the Ravens would benefit from a running back who thrives on quick cuts and field vision.

Two easy connections to make are Towson’s Terrance West and Wisconsin’s James White.

The local aspect of West makes him an intriguing idea for Baltimore, but what he brings to the table is also exactly what Baltimore needs. West’s lower body strength and plus vision make him an ideal zone-blocking running back, and the durability he displayed during his college career would make him a welcomed addition, as Pierce constantly deals with various minor injuries, and Rice played most of the 2013 season hurt. West is a similar running back to Pierce, so if the Ravens are looking for more of a home run hitter out of the backfield, he wouldn’t fit the description. In the third or fourth round, though, West could be a target if he’s available when the Ravens are on the clock.

With newly signed running backs coach Thomas Hammock, the former running backs coach for Wisconsin, it’s not far-fetched to think the coach will put in a good word for his former accomplice in White.

In his first year as Wisconsin’s primary back, White averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 221 attempts. He is a quick-cutting runner with desirable vision, and could be a good fit for Baltimore’s run scheme as a day three prospect.

Pass Catchers

To make things easy: keep an eye on any wide receiver or tight end. The combination of Baltimore’s need at both positions and the depth at those positions in this year’s draft makes it hard to pinpoint specific targets.

Some possible fits for Baltimore’s offense at wide receiver, however, include Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Jarvis Landry, while Jace Amaro and Troy Niklas could be two ideal high-round picks at tight end.

Two potential Ravens targets that are being overrated right now are tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, but you make your own call on each.

Free Safeties

The most glaring need on the defensive side of the ball for the Ravens promises to be free safety, which very well may be addressed in free agency. However, if the Ravens want to pair another young safety with Matt Elam to solidify the back end of the defense long-term, the draft provides a few intriguing options at the position.

In the early rounds, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward can all play free safety in the NFL. Of the three, Ward may be the most ideal center fielding type, which is what Baltimore needs.

In the later rounds, USC’s Dion Bailey, North Carolina’s Tre Boston and Oregon’s Avery Patterson are all viable coverage options, and they could complement a low-to-mid level free agent signee at the position for Baltimore next season.

Contract Talks

With Terrell Suggs locked up long-term, the priorities shift to the offensive side of the ball. Both Monroe and Dennis Pitta are set to become unrestricted free agents, but that doesn’t prevent the Ravens from agreeing to new deals with them prior to free agency.

If the Ravens can franchise Pitta as a tight end at $6.8 million instead of the $11.6 million number for wide receivers, franchising him by March 3 seems like a realistic and ideal scenario. That would allow the Ravens to prevent him from hitting the open market, and then they could continue contract negotiations until July 15.

As for Monroe, slapping him with the franchise tag would be a costly detriment if they can’t work out a long-term deal, as the franchise number for offensive tackles is $11.2 million. It appears to be new deal or bust for the Ravens and Monroe. With new cap space freed up from the Suggs extension, retaining Monroe is a realistic possibility. But remember, the Chicago Bears signed free agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a five-year, $36 million deal last season with over $22 million in guaranteed money.

Monroe and Bushrod don’t even compare as players, and it’d be considered a win for the Ravens front office if they can sign Monroe to a similar deal. He may command top dollar, but with two draft picks already committed to Monroe and concerning uncertainty at both tackle positions, it’s a necessity the Ravens and Monroe can come to terms on a new deal.

Combine week is a prime opportunity for NFL teams to work with agents of prospective free agents, and progress could be made with Monroe and Pitta by the time the event wraps up.

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