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Ravens needs: Outside speed, up-front depth wanted

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

 (US Presswire)  

Another year, another disappointment.

The Baltimore Ravens weren't the best team in football last year, but they were among them -- and stop if you've heard this before. In John Harbaugh's first three seasons as Ravens head coach the club has gone to the playoffs, each time winning at least one road game before falling short.

For the second time in three years the Ravens ended their season in Pittsburgh, and, yes, that's a problem. Reason: They share the AFC North with the Steelers, which means just to get to the top of their division the Ravens must figure out how to overcome the conference's premier team.

Trust me, that thought process has begun, with the Ravens figuring out where they missed last season. At or near the top of that list are wide receivers and cornerbacks, with both factoring in the club's playoff loss. People can question Joe Flacco's credentials as a franchise quarterback, but until he gets speed on the outside we won't know how successful the guy can be.

Five possibilities: Ravens
Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida: He can play guard. He can play center. The Ravens could use either, with Pouncey a solid addition for a physical offensive line in a physical division.
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: He has the size, smarts and skill to play left tackle -- forcing Michael Oher back to the right side and allowing the Ravens to cut ties with Jared Gaither.
Brandon Harris, CB, Miami: He's better in 'man' coverage than he is in zone, which plays to the Ravens' strengths. He's big, has solid coverage skills and went to the school that delivered Baltimore Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland: Two things the Ravens lack: Young receivers, and any receiver with speed. Smith fills both needs. Plus, he's close to home.
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami: Another Hurricane who would fill a position of need. He had a solid Senior Bowl and took huge strides the past two years to develop into a bona fide threat.
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So let's see where Baltimore starts looking:

QB: If you're searching for a quarterback, it's not a starter. Flacco hasn't missed a playoff appearance in three years. Moreover, last season he looked like a quarterback who can make a difference more than simply someone taking care of the position. In short, he's no ordinary Joe anymore. Sorry, I couldn't resist. The backup is a different story, with Marc Bulger an unrestricted free agent who will be in demand. That opens the way for another veteran or a rookie, with the logical choice a veteran.

RB: Agent Drew Rosenhaus said he doesn't believe Willis McGahee will return to the Ravens, and neither do I. First of all, he turns 30 this season. Second, he's not an impact player. OK, so he tied for the team lead in rushing TDs. He also played sparingly -- carrying the ball 207 fewer times than Ray Rice and gaining 1,391 fewer yards rushing and receiving. Le'Ron McClain isn't bad as a short-yardage option, but he's a free agent, which means the Ravens better find someone with size to move the pile and give Rice a breather. Once upon a time, that someone was either McGahee or McClain. Now, both could be gone. Do the math.

WR: The Ravens helped themselves at this position in 2010 with the additions of Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but look at their playoff loss to Pittsburgh and tell me where they came up short: Uh-huh, with Boldin and Houshmandzadeh dropping critical passes down the stretch. Boldin is the team's best receiver, but he doesn't have the speed the Ravens need outside the numbers. In fact, nobody does. Once upon a time, Donte' Stallworth was that guy, but he's nothing more than a journeyman. Baltimore must find Flacco a deep threat to improve his game and to make guys like Boldin and Derrick Mason -- who enters his 15th NFL season -- that much more effective. Nobody here is under 30, and it's time that changed.

TE: Todd Heap is steady, but he's 31 and does have a history of injuries. Nevertheless, he still is an important part of the Ravens' offense, a sure receiver Flacco trusts to make the short and over-the-middle catches. Ed Dickson showed flashes as a backup and looks like the tight end of the future. With the Ravens drafting two tight ends a year ago (Dennis Pitta was the other) I wouldn't expect them to go in that direction early -- if at all -- in next month's draft.

OL: Is there or is there not a future for left tackle Jared Gaither? Maybe, but not on this team -- especially after he was hurt last summer, and the Ravens played the entire season without him. Michael Oher took his place, moving from the right to the left side, and struggled. Normally, you'd think the Ravens might hedge on Gaither's return, but most people think he'll be gone when the Ravens go to camp. Otherwise, the Ravens are set at all five positions, though Matt Birk turns 35 this summer and Marshal Yanda is better suited at guard than tackle. Chris Chester almost surely succeeds Birk when he retires, but, though he's better at center, he stays at right guard. Backups are always needed, as are potential starters -- which Baltimore could find in the draft or free agency. Bottom line: The Ravens are good here, but they could be better.

DL: Haloti Ngata is one of the premier defensive tackles anywhere. Despite persistent double-teams, he finished sixth on the club in tackles and second in sacks. He also was named to the All-Pro team and was franchised last month. But Ngata could use some help. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg is 34 and beginning to wind down. The Ravens should have a suitable replacement in Terrence Cody -- who came on at the end of last season -- but they need more help on the outside. Cory Redding was little more than ordinary in his first season with the club, while Paul Kruger was a disappointment as a pass rusher.

LB: What's the deal with Ray Lewis? He turns 36 in May, yet led the team in tackles and fumble recoveries, had two sacks and two interceptions and scored once. He says he'll retire the moment the game isn't fun, but tell me what's not to like about what he did? Still, the Ravens should start grooming someone as a replacement. Lewis is the backbone of a defense that has held opponents to under 4 yards per rush in every year of their existence -- or every year Lewis has been there -- and he missed only five snaps last year. Terrell Suggs is the team's best pass rusher, leading the club in sacks then wreaking havoc in the playoffs with five sacks in two games. Color him an elite player. Jarret Johnson tailed off at outside linebacker from his 2009 play, while Jameel McClain was surprisingly good as a starter, finishing third on the club in tackles. I'm not sure what to make of Sergio Kindle, but let's not count on anything at this point.

DB: Let's go back to the Pittsburgh game again, and tell me what your lasting fourth-period memory was. Me? It's that third-and-19 call where Ben Roethlisberger sails a pass 58 yards into the hands of rookie Antonio Brown to set up the winning touchdown. Yeah, it was vintage Ben. But it was also proof of where the Ravens must improve. OK, so the return of Domonique Foxworth will be a big help, but you can never, ever, ever have enough cornerbacks, and Baltimore knows better than most. It lost Foxworth at the opening of training camp and was so desperate for bodies it traded for Josh Wilson, then plugged him into the starting lineup. But let's not dwell on the Pittsburgh game. Baltimore lost in the closing minutes to Atlanta, and had Houston make fourth-period drives of 99 and 95 yards on them. Heck, Cincinnati nearly caught them in the season finale. Chris Carr, Fabian Washington and Wilson could leave as free agents, and while none was extraordinary a year ago, that would hurt. The Ravens didn't draft a cornerback last year. They will now ... because they must.

And safety? I don't worry about safety, though I do worry about Ed Reed's health. He was a difference maker again, producing an NFL-high eight interceptions in 10 games. But he missed the first six games for a reason --he has absorbed a zillion hits over his career. Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura could start with a lot of teams, and while Dawan Landry is rock-solid, he could bolt via free agency.

Photo by US Presswire


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