Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco calls a play against the Chicago… (Rob Grabowski, Rob Grabowski-USA…)
Despite the team's failure to make the NFL playoffs for the first time in six years, an overhaul of the offensive coaching staff and possible salary cap problems, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes the Ravens could be serious contenders again in 2014.
Kiper has been splicing film and watching video of college football's elite since April, and says this year's draft is strong and deep enough for the Ravens to fill holes that were left from last year's 8-8 season.
The Ravens have selections in the first, second, third, sixth and seventh rounds and could get a maximum of four more in compensatory picks from the league.
"They were in playoff contention up until the end of last season, so they should be able to help themselves in the draft and get back into the postseason," Kiper said.
On May 8, the Ravens will have either the No. 16 or No. 17 overall pick in the first round, depending on a coin flip with the Dallas Cowboys later this month. They could have a shot at Texas A&M's Mike Evans, the big wide receiver general manager Ozzie Newsome has coveted.
At 6-5 and 225 pounds, Evans is fast enough to get downfield and physical enough to get off press coverage at the line of scrimmage. He has great leaping ability, can shield off defensive backs and would give quarterback Joe Flacco a big outside target in the red zone.
Evans had 69 catches for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Unfortunately for the Ravens, New York is in need of a receiver, and Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has always preferred big receivers. Could the Ravens trade up to snatch Evans ahead of New York?
"They might have to go up four or five spots to get Evans," Kiper said. "But you know what you're getting, and he has tons of ability. If you have Evans on one side and Torrey Smith on the other, then you're really on to something."
The Ravens would be on to something if they drafted North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in the first round instead of Evans. He had 62 catches for 973 yards and three touchdowns last season. At 6-4 and 245 pounds Ebron can play close to the line of scrimmage or in the slot.
If the Ravens re-sign unrestricted free agent Dennis Pitta and select Ebron, they could run the two-tight end offense that would allow them to balance up defenses. Like Evans, Ebron would give Flacco another target in the red zone.
Regardless, the Ravens are likely to walk away with one or possibly Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro (106 catches, 1,352 yards, seven touchdowns), who is bigger and was more productive than Ebron last season.
In the second round, the Ravens are likely to take a center or guard. Kiper still likes Ryan Jensen, the 6-4, 318-pound center the Ravens selected in the sixth round last season out of Colorado State-Pueblo. Jensen didn't play last season because of a broken foot.
If the Ravens believe Jensen can compete with Gino Gradkowski for the starting center position, then the Ravens might opt for a guard like Stanford's David Yankey or Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson.
Possible center candidates might include North Carolina's Russell Bodine or USC's Marcus Martin, both of whom can play guard.
"Regardless, they should be able to upgrade," Kiper said. "There will be a lot of good linemen still available at the end of the first round and heading into the second."
By the time the Ravens head into the third round, they'll probably be looking for a big running back, and then they'll go to the defensive side of the ball. They'd like to get another pass rusher or a free safety, one who might allow them to move second-year player Matt Elam to strong safety.
"They are set on defense, but they are going to need young players like Elam, Brandon Williams [tackle] and Arthur Brown [linebacker] to step up," Kiper said. "One of the keys is to stay healthy and developing young players. These guys will have to get it done this season."
Maybe a decade ago, the Ravens would have seemed on the verge of rebuilding, a job that lasted several of years. But these days, things can be turned around quickly, according to Kiper.
"The NFL is so fragile," Kiper said. "Look at Houston: They were favorites to win the Super Bowl, and now they have the first pick. Atlanta was another favorite to win the title, and they won four games. Washington went to the playoffs the year before, and they struggled this season. Then, just take a look at Kansas City. The Ravens aren't that far away. They can get back quickly with some good picks and if certain guys get better from a year ago."