Ravens holding cards close to vest

OWINGS MILLS -- Deciphering the Baltimore Ravens' true intentions regarding the NFL draft is akin to sitting down for a poker game with savvy card players.

Naturally reluctant to give out much tangible information on their plans, the Ravens held a low-key draft luncheon Tuesday devoid of many grand declarations about prospects or trade scenarios.

There was some definite clarity about the need for a strong draft class, especially with the eighth overall pick of the first round.

"This is probably the most critical draft we've ever had based on the needs on this team, based on the future, our record last year and where we want to go," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "We've all talked about sleepless nights, waking up in the middle of the night. I'm very excited, and I can't wait."

Following a 5-11 season, the Ravens are looking for an influx of talent to replenish an aging roster.

Months removed from a last-place finish in the AFC North with Brian Billick being fired and replaced by John Harbaugh, the Ravens are hungry to engineer a turnaround.

"The pressure that I have on myself is I still have a bitter taste about last year," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I lost a very dear friend in Brian, and I think it's upon me to do everything I can to get this organization and this town back to where it belongs, and that's on top of the AFC North."

The clues on what the Ravens might do are centered on obvious needs at quarterback where veteran Steve McNair is coming off an injury-plagued, career-worst season, cornerback where starters Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are recovering from injuries and illness, respectively, as well as defensive end and offensive tackle.

If the Ravens are fortunate, they could land highly-regarded Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan if the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets pass on him.

The Ravens refused to say if they would draft Ryan at No. 8 if he's there, but it's believed they would pick him.

Ryan is graded highly by scouts for more than his throwing prowess.

"Matt Ryan has everything you want between the ears," DeCosta said. "Great leadership, field general, great poise, outstanding in the fourth quarter. He's off the charts."

So, is Ryan definitely the Ravens' guy at No. 8?

"I couldn't say that," DeCosta said with a laugh. "We'll just have to see how they come off the board."

The Ravens have also worked out and conducted official visits with strong-armed Delaware senior Joe Flacco, Louisville's Brian Brohm and Michigan's Chad Henne. Brohm visited the Ravens' training complex Tuesday.

DeCosta acknowledged that there's a possibility that all four of the top passers could be gone by the time the Ravens are on the clock in the second round at No. 38 overall.

"We like them all," DeCosta said. "We think there are seven or eight quarterbacks in this draft that are very good prospects. I think the top four or five guys all have different strengths and weaknesses, but they're all good football players. They've all won in college, which is probably the most important thing.

"They all throw the ball well, and they are all smart guys. What we have to do is try to fit them with all the other players in the draft, which is where the magic is, where you have to take a guy and where you should take a guy."

The Ravens, and the New England Patriots, who hold the pick directly above Baltimore, are both high on swift Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin was in New England on Tuesday, one day after touring the Ravens' headquarters, and is considered a strong candidate for the eight pick.

The Ravens have met with Kansas' Aqib Talib, who has character issues, Arizona's Antoine Cason and have displayed interest in South Florida's Mike Jenkins and Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

"I wouldn't say there's a clear-cut No. 1 corner this year," DeCosta said. "I think if you polled every single team you'd have a different order, but all four guys are worthy of being first-round picks."

McKelvin appears to be a standout, though. Especially with his game-changing return skills and 4.32 speed in the 40-yard dash.

"Great feet, very quick guy, good vision, ball skills, can change direction as well as anyone in the draft," DeCosta said. "Probably as good a return man as any in the draft."

USC defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis and Boise State offensive tackle Ryan Clady have also been frequently attached to the Ravens' first pick. DeCosta said that Ellis would be a top three pick in most years.

Traditionally, the Ravens have been successful when drafting in the top 10. That track record includes offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (fourth, 1996), linebacker Peter Boulware (fourth, 1997), cornerback Duane Starks (10th, 1998), McAlister (10th, 1999), running back Jamal Lewis (fifth, 2000), wide receiver Travis Taylor (10th, 2000) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (10th, 2003).

There have been several drafts where the Ravens have had some of their highest-rated players fall to them.

"The year we got Suggs and the year we got McAlister they were very high for us, very high," DeCosta said. "I don't think it's inconceivable that we might get a player in our top three this year."

Meanwhile, the Ravens could look to acquire more ammunition toward a rich draft with trade-back options to stockpile picks.

"This draft is very strong in comparison to last year's draft," DeCosta said. "We've got nine picks, we hope to have some more at some point possibly, and I think we can really legitimize our roster for the next four, five, six years with an excellent draft this year."

Newsome seemed confident of that transpiring when recalling his sideline conversation with former colleagues Phil Savage and James "Shack" Harris months ago at the East-West Shrine Game in Houston during the Ravens' coaching search.

"They were saying, 'Your plate must be full,'" Newsome said. "And I said, 'That's true because at this point we don't have a head coach or a staff, but I think I can figure out who the eight best players in the country are."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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