Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks with linebacker Ray Lewis… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
NFL teams already have their stopwatches poised to time draft prospects at the annual scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Should Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o or Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree plummet to the Ravens' 32nd overall draft pick of the first round in late April, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock thinks the Super Bowl champions would bolt into a speedy 40-yard dash to select either coveted defender.
"If either one of those players slid to Baltimore, I think they'd sprint to the podium," Mayock said.
Te'o will be among the most scrutinized players at the combine due to the well-publicized revelation that he was duped by an acquaintance into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman.
With both highly-regarded linebackers projected as falling on draft boards due to off-field issues, analysts say that Te'o or Ogletree could get within striking distance of the Ravens.
The Ravens need inside linebackers because middle linebacker Ray Lewis is retiring, Dannell Ellerbe might leave via free agency and Jameel McClain still isn't cleared medically to play football again after suffering a spinal cord contusion in December.
"I think that the trouble that the two inside linebackers have had could ultimately help the Ravens," Mayock said. "To me, Manti Te'o should come off the board plus or minus 20. He could drop a little bit if people aren't buying into him like they used to."
For Te'o, how he answers tough questions from teams during interviews this week is expected to be huge for his draft outlook.
Just as important: How the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder fares in speed and agility testing.
"How far will he drop?" ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Te'o. "It depends what he runs. We're saying drop, but if he runs a great 40 time then he gets right back into that mix to be in the top-10 to 12 discussion. The 40 time's the most important thing. When you talk to NFL people, they've said to me on numerous occasions that it's about what he runs.
"Even though he had seven interceptions and lost weight and increased his agility and his coverage skills this year, what he runs is going to determine whether he's an every-down linebacker. So that's going to be the most important thing for Manti."
Ogletree was recently arrested and charged with driving under the influence, raising more character concerns following his suspension last season for reportedly failing a drug test.
Although known for trouble off the field, Ogletree's speed and pass-coverage skills are in demand from NFL defensive coordinators.
"Ogletree is potentially a top 10 player who has had significant issues," Mayock said. "You want to talk about a kid that's made for the NFL game with an ability to drop and cover, a former safety. He's fun to watch on tape. He flies. He's explosive.
"He's not great against the run, but, boy, in today's NFL, he's a great fit. But given the off field issues and the DUI recently, he's going to be one of the more intriguing guys to follow throughout the draft."
LSU's Kevin Minter and Kansas State's Arthur Brown are two other athletic inside linebackers often linked to the Ravens because of their aggressive, instinctive style of play.
During a season-ending news conference, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged that bolstering the defense is a top priority.
Nose guards Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu struggled for the majority of the season. Free safety Ed Reed is an unrestricted free agent now that his six-year, $44.5 million contract has expired. And outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who led the Ravens with a career-high nine sacks, will probably be far too expensive to retain as a free agent. Kruger is expected to command a contract in excess of $40 million.
"The middle of the defense, we think we've got to get better at defensive tackle," Newsome said. "We know that we have one linebacker retiring and one that's a free agent. We've got a safety that's a free agent and some young guys that have yet to step up. So, we would say the middle of the defense is probably the one area that we will concentrate on."
The areas the Ravens need to strengthen appear to match up well with the quality of the draft.
It's regarded as a strong class of safeties, led by Texas' Kenny Vaccaro along with LSU's Eric Reid, Florida's Matt Elam, South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger and Fresno State's Phillip Thomas.
"It's a very deep group of safeties this year," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "It wouldn't surprise me knowing how smart the Ravens are and how they manage the draft that they maybe wind up in the second or third round getting a good player at that position."
Vaccaro and Elam delivered several punishing hits last season, also displaying outstanding range.
"When you look at Vaccaro, I think his overall body of work was outstanding," Kiper said. "He's a guy who's an enforcer. He can cover. He's complete.