Baltimore Ravens’ General Manager Ozzie Newsome made history in 2002 when he became the first African American to hold such a title in NFL history. Since then, he has become one of the most respected front office executives in term of recruiting talent and pasting together competitive teams.

The Ravens have won a Super Bowl and reached the playoffs in seven of the last 10 seasons, primarily because of the star-studded defensive unit Newsome has handpicked throughout his tenure. Pro Bowlers like linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata annually places Baltimore among the stingiest defensive units in the league.

But Newsome has used the last three drafts to focus on improving the Ravens’ offensive unit, selecting budding stars in running back Ray Rice, blindside tackle Michael Oher and quarterback Joe Flacco. The young offensive additions have brought balance to the Ravens’ attack, helping them reach postseason play in each of the last three seasons.

But the Ravens are still perhaps just a premier player or two short of their goal of returning to Super Bowl status. Can Ozzie find the difference maker in the 2011 NFL draft? Will he build towards offense or defense this offseason? AFRO sports writers’ Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley offer their analyses:

Riley: The Ravens will be picking 26th overall, and as much as I’d hate to admit this as an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Baltimore has tremendously improved on offense in recent years. That’s why they’re picking so late in the first round for the third year straight. But while their offense has improved, the Ravens’ defensive unit has gotten old over the years and doesn’t dominate as it once did. Baltimore had led the Steelers, 21-7, at halftime of the AFC Playoff Divisional Championship back in January, but gave up 24 second-half points to Pitt to lose the game. The only way you give up that many points that quickly is if you have can’t stop the pass, so the Ravens may want to focus on strengthening their secondary or pass rush. Fortunately for Baltimore, most draft experts have University of Colorado star cornerback Jimmy Smith falling towards the bottom of the first round within reach of the Ravens. At 6-foot-2-inches tall, 211 pounds, Smith has the prototypical size that you want in a large, physical cornerback. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds before the NFL combine, so he also has the speed you need to play the position. If Smith isn’t there, Newsome may want to go with a pass-rushing defensive end/outside linebacker.

Green: I hate to go on record agreeing with a Steelers’ fan, but you’re absolutely right. The Ravens aren’t the defensive juggernauts they once were, primarily because of the shift in talent towards the offensive side of the ball. Baltimore hasn’t used a first round pick on a defensive player in three straight years, but I have a feeling that will change this Thursday. I just don’t think the pick will be Colorado’s Smith.

Sure, the Ravens need help in the secondary, and Smith definitely has the tools to offer immediate assistance in that department. He’s even been compared to former Ravens’ Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McCalister, once considered one of the best corners in the league. Smith is said to be a speedy ball hawk with a nasty, physical style of play, much like how McCalister used to man the sidelines. But the comparisons don’t stop there. Like C-Mac, Smith also has a questionable off-the-field history of run-ins with the law that may have general managers questioning how his character will be in the locker room. When Ravens head coach John Harbaugh took over the team in 2008, McCalister was one of the “bad characters” that was eventually cut from the team because he reportedly didn’t buy into Harb’s philosophy of a more disciplined, unified locker room. Baltimore will probably pass on Smith’s off-the-field reputation and cash in on one of the top pass rushers still available, which may include players like Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, Georgia’s Justin Houston or even Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward.

Riley: You have to be joking, right? You really believe the Ravens would pass up a star prospect because of character issues? After putting up with the off-the-field problems of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Donte’ Stallworth, Sergio Kindle and a long list of formers Ravens players no longer with the team, I would think it’s a little too late for Baltimore to start drafting with a new sense of morals. Smith is just the talent they need at corner, and he’ll fit in fine with Baltimore’s passion-driven style of defense. If they pass up on him at No. 26, they may not get another chance at drafting an impact cornerback later in the draft. And that’s fine with me if they don’t; that will give my Steelers and their young speedy receivers the advantage again when we come to Baltimore for the regular season opener on Sept. 11.

Green: Call me crazy, but I don’t think Baltimore’s secondary is nearly as bad as you suggest. They gave up some big passes last season, but who didn’t? This is the NFL, so receivers are going to find ways to make plays, regardless of who covers them. The Ravens already have a cast of solid corners, including former University of Maryland speedster Josh Wilson, Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth, so they aren’t as desperate for help as you make it seem. Most of their issues against the pass last season came because of the lack of pass rush. With that said, the Ravens could very well trade back in the draft, giving up their first round pick for a couple of second round picks. That way, they could select both a cornerback and a pass-rusher on day one of the draft. I think Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward would be the perfect fit for Baltimore if they can grab him either at 26 or early in the second round. At 6-foot-5-inches tall, 296 pounds, Heyward can’t be blocked coming off the edge and is excellent at stopping both the run and pass. Take him first, and then pick up a second-round prospect at cornerback to fill the secondary void. Texas cornerback Aaron Williams is expected to still be available in the second round, and, if not, his teammate Curtis Brown will be. Miami University cornerback Brandon Harris should be available too, and the Ravens already have a strong history of picking Miami U defensive prospects (i.e. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed).

But then again, Ozzie could have us all guessing wrong and may use his first rounder to draft a star receiver for Flacco to throw to for the next decade.

Will he go offense or defense? Stay tuned…

 

Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk