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Ravens crave rematch with Pats

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Ravens crave rematch with Pats

The Ravens were there first. They'd clinched a berth in the AFC championship game a day earlier.

They waited until Sunday night to find out they’d have a rematch with the New England Patriots, who defeated them 23-20 in last year’s title match to advance to the Super Bowl.

While no player admitted they had a preference of opponent after their 38-35 upset victory at the Denver Broncos on Saturday, deep down they did.

“I think we kind of wanted to play the Patriots again,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said of watching the Patriots beat the Houston Texans. “If we were to go to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough and win there. ... Hopefully, we can get it done this time."

Tight end Dennis Pitta started out well. He had a major lull near mid-season that lasted until recently. He 3 catches for 55 yards in the divisional playoff win in Denver, but no catch he has had all season may be bigger than his one in the first overtime.

With the Ravens facing 3rd-and-13 from their own 6 and in danger of punting the ball back to the Broncos and giving Peyton Manning the ball around midfield, Pitta rose up and snatched a 24-yard reception as he crashed to the ground.

Even though the drive later stalled, it allowed the Ravens to get out of that jam. Sam Koch had a 52-yard punt that buried the Broncos at their own 7.  Corey Graham then would intercept Manning and set the stage for the Ravens to win on a field goal in double-overtime. 

Pitta had 5 catches for 41 yards, including a 6-yard TD pass that tied the score at 10 in last year's AFC title game. He had 5 catches for 40 yards and 1 TD in the Ravens' 31-30 comeback victory vs. the Patriots in Week 3 this season. Pitta hurdled Steve Gregory en route to a 20-yard TD in that game. 

At one point, it didn't appear the Ravens could get back to the AFC title game. They'd lost Ray Lewis (triceps), Terrell Suggs (biceps), Marshal Yanda (ankle), Dannell Ellerbe (ankle) and Ngata (knee/shoulder) at various points. They limped into the playoffs at 10-6, losing four of their last five games, but have gotten healthy again just in time. 

"It's been a little longer road for us. We've had to play two games already, and last year we had the bye and got a little more rest," said Pitta, noting the Ravens finished two games better at 12-4 and had a first-round bye in last year's playoffs. "But we really feel good about the road that we've taken, and we're sitting here as a confident football team and excited for this game."

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Ranking the Ravens’ five biggest needs headed into the NFL Draft

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Ranking the Ravens’ five biggest needs headed into the NFL Draft

Though the Ravens’ run through free agency went as well as could reasonably be expected for a team without bundles of money to burn, they’re still left with a few holes on the roster headed into the NFL Draft. 

The Ravens have nine picks in the draft, which begins on April 23, seven of which come in the first four rounds. There, general manager Eric DeCosta said he expects the Ravens to be able to get players that can contribute immediately with the team's first seven picks. 

Here are a few of the most pressing needs on the roster with just over two weeks until the draft begins.

Baltimore selections are: 28th, 55th, 60th, 92nd, 106th, 129th, 134th, 170th, 225th overall.  

Inside linebacker

The ranking of the needs can be varied a little bit, but this stands as the Ravens’ biggest hole on the roster. 

It’s a position they didn’t address in free agency, and Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor left for other teams. L.J. Fort is the only off-ball linebacker with starting experience. He’s backed up by special teams linebacker Chris Board and Otaro Alaka, who was placed on injured reserve before Week 4 by the Ravens.

Last season, the Ravens used Chuck Clark heavily at the linebacker position in a lot of sub-package roles. That will likely happen once agai with the return of Tavon Young and a bolstered defensive front on the way, but the Ravens won't be able to use Clark as their de facto middle linebacker for forever.

If Monday’s conference call with reporters was any indication — which could mean anything — the Ravens don’t need to take a linebacker that can be on the field for all three downs, or a linebacker in the early rounds. Instead, they can find a one or two in the mid-rounds with a specialized trait and build packages around him for one or two downs.

“I think when we look at the board, there's obviously guys who can do all three things — play the run, cover and blitz — but I think when we look at the guys throughout the draft, there are players that can help us in specific roles,” director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. “There are guys in the mid-rounds that can come in and cover, maybe play the run.”

Interior offensive line

The Ravens interior offensive line isn’t in the best shape right now. In fact, they might need to add two or three different pieces to the entire line before next season begins. 

“You’ve certainly got guys,” DeCosta said Monday. “There are some tackles that we think can play inside, play guard. There are some really good guards (and) some centers in this draft. I think we’ve shown in the past that we can find guys in the second, third, fourth, fifth rounds, offensive linemen who can come in and play.”

With Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. the bookends at both tackle spots, the interior of the Ravens’ offensive line is in a state of flux. Left guard Bradley Bozeman played well last season, but the two spots to his right are still up in the air. 

Center Matt Skura is still recovering from a significant knee injury where he tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in late November. He also suffered a dislocated kneecap. Patrick Mekari played admirably in his absence, but only started five regular season games in his rookie season.

Then, legendary guard Marshal Yanda announced his retirement and left a hole at right guard. For now, Ben Powers figures to be the one to replace his spot along the line, but Powers has just one game of experience in his NFL career. 

The Ravens also cut reserve tackle James Hurst, a versatile offensive lineman who could fill in at four of the positions along the line. Meaning, the Ravens could enter the 2020 season with a center and a right guard who have played, including playoffs, a combined seven games. 

Expect the Ravens to add multiple picks along the line, even extending out to the tackle position as well. Backup tackle Andre Smith is 33-years-old, so some youth could be needed there as well.

“So, we’re going to have to really do a great job there,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s probably job one or two. We’ve got to make sure that we do a great job of making sure the interior offensive line is all set. How you do it, you do it the old way. We’ve got to look at all the players, try to find the best fits.”

Edge-rusher

This ranking of need can be debated as well, but the Ravens need another pass-rusher on the outside to go with Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson. 

Teams can always use more pass-rushers, and the Ravens are no different in this case. Judon is coming off a Pro Bowl season where he registered 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits — both team highs. The Ravens placed the franchise tag on him in the offseason, which will pay him just over 16 million dollars. After him, though, the Ravens had a noticeable drop in production.. 

Ferguson, a rookie, slowly found his role throughout the season and finished with 2.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits. Tyus Bowser placed second on the team in sacks and quarterback hits with five and 10, respectively, but the Ravens could be without two of their top five leaders in sacks last season in 2020.

The situation with Judon’s contract only adds to the need, as the Ravens quite simply might not be able to afford Judon long-term, should he have a breakout season. With not much depth on the roster behind Judon, Bowser and Ferguson, adding to that is paramount.

While the defensive line additions of Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell should help mightily with the pass rush, the Ravens could still use another body on the edge. 

Wide receiver

In a draft class loaded with talented wide receivers, the Ravens have a lot of options. Those options could include trading up in a loaded year for wide receivers to get their guy, or trading back to take one of many on the board. 

DeCosta said 25 players on the Ravens’ draft board will be wide receivers. But the Ravens have options in terms of when, and how, they want to select their receiver — or receivers.

“We like our receivers, first and foremost,” DeCosta said of the current roster. “I think Miles (Boykin) and Marquise (Brown) and Willie (Snead IV) and we brought Chris Moore back, Jaleel (Scott) — we have some guys that we think are going to make another jump. We really like that room. So, do we feel the urgency? We probably feel that with every position.”

As it stands now, the Ravens wideout room is led by two players entering their second seasons. Brown played all of his rookie season, a year in which he finished second on the team in receptions with an injured foot. He's expected to be healthy for his second season in the league. Boykin, after a strong training camp, struggled to break through and caught 13 passes for 198 yards. But in his second year in the league, there’s hope he can develop into a strong possession wideout. 

The Ravens have got a talented stable of pass-catchers with Brown and Andrews leading the way, so the need for a talented third option to emerge is big for the development of the Ravens’ offense.

“We want to be the best we can be at every single position,” DeCosta said. “This happens to be a wide receiver class with a lot of really good players, and if we're on the clock and we think that guy is the best player, we'll probably pick him.”

Defensive line

The Ravens added to this position most in the offseason, so it might seem surprising for this to be on the list. But a deeper dive indicates it’s more of a need than originally thought. 

Baltimore’s starting defensive front next season will consist of Campbell, Wolfe and Brandon Williams. After that, though, the proven depth begins to fade. And there’s even question marks with the starters. 

Wolfe, Williams and Campbell are all over the age of 30, and Wolfe has played all 16 games just once since 2014. He maintains his healthier now than he was in Denver, but the concern won’t go away until he hits the field. 

From there, the depth chart has Jihad Ward, Justin Ellis and Daylon Mack as backup linemen. The unit could use an influx of talent, and youth, to a position that could have some big holes to fill rather quickly.

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What type of running backs are the Ravens looking for in this year's draft? GM Eric DeCosta explains

What type of running backs are the Ravens looking for in this year's draft? GM Eric DeCosta explains

The Ravens’ draft needs mostly stay within the front line on either side of the ball. 

They could use more defensive line and edge-rusher help, as well as more depth and a starter at inside linebacker. The interior offensive line could use depth, as could the tackle position. 

Aside from wide receiver, the Ravens’ needs aren’t all that flashy. 

But when the Ravens are on the clock with the 28th selection, should they stick to their best player available mantra, that could mean a running back comes off the board.

“You have to be big and strong and physical, but you also have to be durable,” general manager Eric DeCosta said. “That's a really important criteria for that position, and also be intelligent. We feel like we have a really good group of running backs on our team, and it'll just basically be who's available when we pick.” 

The Ravens set the NFL’s single-season rushing record last season due in large part to Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram, but also backup running backs Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. 

At a position that is loaded, and also the heartbeat of the Ravens’ offense, there doesn’t appear to be any clear openings. 

“We set the record for rushing last year, so it's going to be hard for us this year,” DeCosta said. “So, we have to find as many good players as we can. I think that position is critically important to our offense.”

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That hasn’t stopped a few mock drafts from around the league projecting the Ravens might go with a running back in the early rounds. Should they do that, a few names to watch are D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins. All figure to be a few of the top running backs off the board. 

Even if the Ravens don’t pick a running back early in the draft, there’s still the possibility of selecting a back late with one of the Ravens’ nine draft choices. 

Should that happen, there will be a competition for the top three spots on the depth chart at running back for Baltimore.

“There are certainly running backs all throughout the draft in each round – first round all the way through the seventh round – guys that we think have the opportunity to come in and help us be the best team we can be, and we'll look at that,” DeCosta said.

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