The Baltimore Ravens are ready for another NFL draft as the first round will unfold tonight, and this is a particularly pivotal time for the defending AFC North champions.
Having drafted 15 Pro Bowl selections since their inaugural season, the Ravens currently hold the 29th overall pick of the first round and need to replenish their roster again as they deal with age at key positions and a tight salary-cap situation.
They would like to fortify their offensive line, particularly the interior after losing Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs to the New Orleans Saints via a $36 million contract.
They could also use another pass rusher to work in tandem with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
And the Ravens need another wide receiver to complement Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
They're always keeping an eye out for potential future successors for middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed, two older players.
"We try to make it a science and we really do in all of the things that we do," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "In the end, it's probably more of an art than a science. There's a lot of nuance involved. It's a big-picture thing. It's a lot of bits and pieces of information.
"It's gut instinct. It's experience. It's past things that have happened. It's memories and it's also a little bit of science involved. You do the best you can and, in the end, you have to make a pick. You can't run away from it. You hope you hit on a guy."
History suggests that the Ravens, who are $1.653 million under the NFL salary cap limit, will wind up with another good player even drafting in the latter half of the first round where they've obtained past standouts such as Grubbs, Lewis, Reed and tight end Todd Heap.
Since the franchise arrived in Maryland in 1996, the Ravens are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for third in the NFL during that span by drafting the most Pro Bowl selections. The New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers have drafted 17 and 16 Pro Bowl picks, respectively.
"I think Baltimore historically has been one of the best and most consistent drafting teams out there and it starts with Ozzie Newsome and his philosophy, and it extends to Eric and his staff," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think they are one of the best staffs that I've seen in this league and part of the reason is they have been together for so long. I think there's a lot of talent on the personnel side led by Ozzie.
"I love the fact that Baltimore sets the board and they stay true to it. There is no confusion on draft day. If they feel like they can trade out of that spot and get better value out of 29 and get a good player at 35 or 37, they will trade out of it in a heartbeat because they trust their board. They know what they can get and how they can get it."
What the Ravens might wind up getting is Wisconsin center Peter Konz, an athletic blocker who visited team headquarters.
The Ravens also worked out Wisconsin offensive guard Kevin Zeitler.
Konz could fit in immediately at left guard as a rookie while being groomed to eventually replace six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk.
The Ravens have displayed consistent interest in Konz throughout the draft process.
"He's got the size," DeCosta said of the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder. "Other than the fact that you have to snap the ball, some of the same skill sets are there. I don't think it's a huge transition."
The only offensive lineman that might be worthy of trading up for the Ravens is versatile University of Georgia offensive tackle-guard Cordy Glenn.
A potential wild card for Baltimore: Midwestern State All-American offensive guard Amini Silatolu.
They're well aware of his physical potential.
Offensive line is clearly the major consideration for the Ravens, but that won't override passing on a superior player at another position.
"Some needs have to go into play, because we have to fulfill them," general manager Newsome said. "But we still, and we have said this for 16 years, we will not take need over a real good player at another position."
The Ravens have executed at least one trade per year over the past decade.
If they opt to move up this year, Alabama middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower is the likely target.
In order to do so, the Ravens will likely have to get past the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. They're known to be enamored of Hightower and own the 24th overall pick.
To move up six or seven spots to get the punishing Crimson Tide All-American, the Ravens would have to give up their first-round draft pick and at least a third-round selection.
"It's really who the player is, and who are the other players around him," DeCosta said. "You'll never see us trade up to get a player unless we think clearly he's by far the best player that's still there. If it's close and there are other players there, then we'll stay and pick. We weigh the pick, we weigh the players. Before we're on the clock, we know the range of players we're going to get. We can narrow it down. If you're seven picks away, we can look and see the six players that we can get.
"The big thing really is, ‘Who's the player that you're going up to get and is he valuable enough for you to do that?' We covet picks. There's nobody that covets picks more than the Baltimore Ravens. And so, the notion of giving up a pick is pretty distasteful for us, unless the player is pretty darn good."
The Ravens have had highly rated players fall to them in the past, including Reed, Lewis, Heap and Grubbs.
"I don't want to give away my trade secrets, but we feel like our pick will be one of our top 20 players," DeCosta said.
There's a perception that Alabama All-American defensive end-outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw is falling on draft boards.
If he's around for the Ravens' pick, he would be tempting.
So would Boise State pass rusher Shea McClellin, a rising prospect Baltimore has shown consistent interest in and has the capability to play defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker.
Top pass rushers like South Carolina's Melvin Ingram and Illinois' Whitney Mercilus won't be around for the Ravens' pick.
McClellin is prized for his versatility, speed and relentless approach to the game.
If the Ravens opt for a wide receiver, big Georgia Tech speedster Stephen Hill would be the top candidate. However, Hill is expected to go as high as the Houston Texans pick.
Hill visited the Ravens.
The only other wide receivers graded as late first-round options are LSU's Rueben Randle and Baylor's Kendall Wright.
A trade-back scenario would be extremely attractive for the Ravens if their coveted players are gone by their pick.
The Ravens currently own eight draft selections, but would like to obtain more because they want to add depth throughout their roster.
''We want as many picks as we can get because I think the draft is all about luck,'' DeCosta said. ''The more picks you have, the better chance you have to get lucky. We need players at every position across the board. The more picks we have, the better chance we have to hit on a few guys. That's really where we are with that.'
''I try to come up with a theme every year before the draft. My theme this year is deep depth. It sort of goes back to Branch Rickey, quality out of quantity, a lot of picks just to get as many players as you can. I think we need a lot of good young players."
Intangibles come into play with the Ravens' draft picks.
They look for players who remain competitive during all phases of the game.
"That's where the magic is with scouting, obviously how hard a guy that competes on tape," DeCosta said. "His motor in the fourth quarter is really, really important. A lot of guys that impress me are guys that are getting their butts kicked in the fourth quarter, they're losing by 25 points, and he's still making plays or trying to making plays
"With the tape, you get a sense, but also when you talk to people, you get a sense. When you interview a guy as well, you get a sense of his toughness and his personality is one thing that I feel is really, really important. You put a profile together and try to come up with an image. You try to reach a consensus."
The Ravens have reached the AFC championship game twice in the past four seasons, losing both times.
They're the only team to make the playoffs each of the past four years and win at least one playoff game.
They came extremely close to reaching the second Super Bowl in franchise history last January, falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium.
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished," DeCosta said. "We're just trying to get better. We look at the team as clinically as we can and try to address what we think are the most important issues on the team. That's what the draft is about, that's what free agency is about. We're just trying to improve so that next year when we're in that same position, we'll win the game."
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