Ravens' needs match up well with draft class

INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL scouting combine launches today with the entire league assembling here to measure, weigh, time and get inside the head of draft prospects in what amounts to an extremely high-stakes job interview. For the Baltimore Ravens, the talent on display could match up well with two of their biggest areas of need.

This draft is fairly rich at wide receiver and cornerback, enough so in the opinion of draft analysts, that general manager Ozzie Newsome won't be forced to deviate from his best-player available philosophy with the 25th overall pick of the first round.

"I don't think Ozzie has an aversion to taking a wide receiver in the first round, I think Ozzie trusts his board," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock during a conference call. "I think the Ravens are as good as any team in the league at staying true to their board and not panicking.

"If you're a Ravens fan and you look at wide receiver and you look at cornerback, you say, ‘Luckily, this is a good year for both positions.' I really think their needs match up with the strength of this draft and I think they'll have another real positive draft."

ESPN's outspoken draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., currently has the Ravens projected to draft Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn in the first round.

Kiper emphasized that the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Benn, who has the size NFL teams covet and the Ravens lack outside, was affected by the substandard quarterback play of Juice Williams last season.

"Benn is a first-round caliber player," Kiper said in a conference call. "The combine will be important for him. He has the physical characteristics and work ethic to be elite at wide receiver. As big and athletic as he is, he's a first-round pick based on how he played."

Kiper also praised Georgia Tech junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas is big, strong and fast at 6-3, 220 pounds with a documented 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds. Unfortunately, he recently broke a bone in his foot and will be out for the next four to six weeks. He may not be able to work out for NFL teams prior to the draft in April.

"All those teams could use a player like Demaryius Thomas," Kiper said. "He's going to go. I think he's a guy that people have kind of overlooked. He's the underrated junior coming out early that people haven't focused enough on as a great talent.

"Maybe his catches weren't to the level of other guys because he plays in that run-oriented offense at Georgia Tech, but he made the most of his opportunities, he's got huge hands and he can run. He's a heck of a player. People are sleeping on Demaryius Thomas, but they won't be after the combine."

Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns last season in the Yellow Jackets' run-first offense.

Mayock and Kiper were in agreement that Benn and Thomas could make sense for Baltimore, which is looking for a playmaker downfield to work in tandem with strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco. "They're two really logical guys at 25," Mayock said.

Kiper predicted that Thomas will be under consideration by the Ravens as well as the New England Patriots, New York Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals.

He also singled out Brandon LaFell of LSU and Golden Tate of Notre Dame as possible candidates for the Ravens' second-round pick at No. 57 overall.

Kiper has downgraded LaFell, who's 6-3, 206 pounds, due to dropped passes.

LaFell caught 52 passes for 705 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

"There were some games where he looked like a first-round pick to me," Kiper said. "There were other games where you'd see some drops. If you had to ask me right now, a borderline first-round pick, but I'd say more of a second-round draft choice. If he would have been a little more consistent catching the ball I'd say he would have been a late first-round pick."

A converted running back, Tate is undersized at 5-10, 195 pounds.

However, he runs extremely well after the catch and has return skills and outstanding leaping ability to take the football away from defensive backs in a crowd.

He caught 93 passes for 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, rushing for two touchdowns and returning one punt for a score.

Unless Tate runs extremely fast at the combine, he may fall into the second round or even lower.

"The biggest question is, how fast is he?" Kiper said. "He didn't separate on the initial routes, but he was great after the catch in the open field running with the football. He's not a real tall kid, but he plays tough and physical in games.

"He shields cornerbacks from the football effectively in tight quarters. To me, if he runs well, he could be a late-first-round pick. If he doesn't, you're talking about second or third round for Golden."

Meanwhile, the Ravens could also have their choice of several cornerbacks in the first round. With cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington both coming off torn anterior cruciate ligaments, the Ravens could use an influx of talent at the position.

The best cornerback, University of Florida standout Joe Haden, will be off the board within the top half of the first round.

Boise State's Kyle Wilson impressed scouts and executives, including Baltimore director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, at the Senior Bowl.

Mayock praised Wilson for his physical nature. Other cornerbacks Mayock mentioned as potential first-round draft picks: Devin McCourty (Rutgers) and Patrick Robinson (Florida State).

Mayock likes Robinson's athleticism, but questioned his willingness to be physical on a consistent basis.

He referenced Kareem Jackson (Alabama) and Jerome Murphy (South Florida) as possible second-round options.

The Ravens could also use an upgrade in their pass rush and at tight end.

University of Michigan hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end Brandon Graham has been compared favorably to Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

He dominated at the Senior Bowl, so much so that he may have played his way out of striking distance from the Ravens.

University of Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham is coming off major knee surgery, but is regarded as a gifted athlete. He has been linked to the Ravens in a few mock drafts.

Former Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap is under contract for two more seasons with base salaries scheduled for $4 million in 2010 and $4.6 million in 2011.

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