Soon after the regular season ended, there

ON THE RAVENS

March 24, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

Soon after the regular season ended, there were a number of possibilities surrounding the Ravens' first-round draft pick. They needed a running back, outside linebacker, offensive tackle or cornerback. Now, the needs appear to be narrowed down to two, cornerback and offensive tackle.

The Ravens have always said they will take the highest-rated player on the board when they pick (29th overall this year), and it'll be a stretch if they can get a player at one of those two positions.

The Ravens' draft scenario started to become clearer a few weeks ago when they re-signed outside linebacker Jarret Johnson to replace Adalius Thomas. The Ravens also traded for former Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee to replace Jamal Lewis. There are few other gaping holes.

Even at cornerback, the Ravens still have veteran Samari Rolle, who might be savvy enough to make it through another season, but the offensive line situation is murkier.

Sometime before the draft, Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden will announce whether he plans to retire. Regardless, the Ravens should still draft a tackle if one is available because Ogden is going to play only one, two or maybe three years at best, and they might also need a replacement at right tackle if Adam Terry struggles this season.

The Ravens made a really smart move last offseason when they brought in a second offensive line coach, Greg Roman, to work with Chris Foerster. During training camp, Roman worked with young players such as guard Jason Brown and center Chris Chester, and it paid off because both had to play for injured players last season.

It could pay off again if they draft a tackle like Penn State's Levi Brown or Central Michigan's Joe Staley.

The lack of a running game last season significantly hurt the Ravens' chances for playoff success. But the Ravens believe the addition of McGahee will help improve one of the NFL's worst rushing offenses. The next step, then, is obvious: Improve the offensive line.

Everything else seems to be in place. Quarterback Steve McNair is back, and so are his receivers. The defense might not be as good as last season, but the Ravens will still be in the top five. With an improved running game, they can rest their defense while taking pressure off McNair.

What tackle is available for the Ravens in the first round?

Unless the Ravens trade up, they probably can't get Wisconsin's Joe Thomas or Brown. Thomas is a superb pass blocker and uses his leverage well. He needs to improve his run-blocking, but he is still considered by some as the best prospect coming out of college football. Brown has great strength in his hands and makes outstanding use of angles and leverage, but some question whether he is nasty enough.

The tackle creating the most buzz, though, is Staley. He's a former tight end who weighs 304 pounds, and runs the 40-yard dash between 4.79 and 4.82 seconds. He is solid, rarely gives an inch in pass protection and uses good leverage. He is a bit stiff and not overpowering at the point of attack, but seems like a Ravens-type pick because he is athletic and works extremely hard to get better.

Some others the Ravens might look at, even though they aren't projected as first-round picks, are Texas' Justin Blalock, Northern Illinois' Doug Free and Notre Dame's Ryan Harris.

As for cornerback, there will be plenty in the draft. The Ravens have to decide whether they are going to move Rolle to nickel back or continue to let him play on the corner in the regular defense. Last season, the Ravens protected Rolle. The outside linebackers onhis side took deep drops, and safeties shaded to his side and gave him help over the top. Still, teams managed several big plays against Rolle, even though safety Ed Reed was partially to blame for some of them.

Michigan's Leon Hall is generally rated the top cornerback, but Pittsburgh's Darrelle Revis and Texas' Aaron Ross are not far behind. By the time the Ravens pick in the first round, those players might be gone and the Ravens will have to settle for a corner such as Arkansas' Chris Houston, who reminds people a lot of former Ravens cornerback Duane Starks. He's feisty and has a cocky attitude, which means he'll fit in well in Baltimore. He can break quickly on a throw or turn his hips and easily run with most receivers. One major drawback is that he is slow locating the ball and struggles getting position down the field.

But overall, he appears to be worthy of the Ravens' first-round pick. If not, an offensive tackle, such as Staley, will work just fine.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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