Ravens ready for "very important" draft as they rebuild foundation

Tonight, the Ravens begin perhaps the most important step in their process of building their team back up after spending a decent chunk of the offseason tearing it down.

As the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have departed, a new era of football in Baltimore is on the way. And while the faces will be Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the foundation of its future will begin to be laid down tonight when the NFL draft gets under way at 8 p.m.

Ravens fans will be waiting far longer than that, as the team's first pick doesn't come until No. 32, the last selection of the opening round.

But with 12 picks over the next three days, the Ravens know this draft will be a crucial one.

"I would say it's important. It's very important," coach John Harbaugh said. "With the transition and some of the guys that we're talking about that aren't here and the transition of our football team, it's going to be very important. It's going to be important to get the right guys. We're working hard at it, and I am really excited about it.

"I think our scouts have done a tremendous job. We were in those meetings for the last week, and you see the work they've done and the reports they read, and the consensus that we came to on a lot of different players after we hashed it all out, they were very prepared. They've just done a great job across the board, and that's what really makes the draft - that's where it all starts, like (general manager Ozzie Newsome) was talking about. So to me, we've got a good foundation, a good basis for having a great draft because of the work they've done."

This might not be the best year for such an important draft to the Ravens. One high-ranking NFL executive told CBS Sportsline this year's class could be a forgettable one.

"When we look back at this draft in five or 10 years," said the team executive, "we might view it as one of the worst we've seen in some time."

But Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta believes the strength of this draft is depth.

"I think numbers-wise, we see an extra round, basically, and about 32 or 35 extra players that we think are draftable players in this draft," DeCosta said. "So the pool of players is greater. I think the quality of player between 15 and 45 is excellent. I think there are players in every round that we like, slotted very well.

"Defensively, it's a very, very strong draft. Offensively, pretty good, too. Up front on the defensive and offensive lines, we see a lot of really good players. With the amount of juniors that came out this year, that really bolstered the crop of players. I think 74 juniors came out this year, and that really increased the depth as well."

So what exactly do the Ravens need?

With the retirement of Lewis and departure of Dannell Ellerbe, inside linebacker is a position of need, and maybe more so because of the uncertain future of the recently signed Rolando McClain.

Baltimore could also use help at safety even though Michael Huff was signed to replace Reed. Offensive tackle and wide receiver are the Ravens' biggest holes on offense with wideout Anquan Boldin gone and tackle Bryant McKinnie still a free agent. Both could be addressed in this draft as well.

The Ravens have undergone the most turnover on defense, and have added plenty there with Dumervil, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears in the front seven and Huff at safety. Newsome said the offseason acquisitions won't affect Baltimore's approach, but he did acknowledge it could be a defense-heavy draft.

"To say we aren't going to take the best player, that would be wrong," Newsome said. "But like at the outset, they talked about us taking some interior defensive linemen. We could do that. Could we take some inside linebackers? We could do that. Could we take some safeties? We could do that. We won't pass up a good corner. You don't ever have enough good corners. You don't ever have enough good pass rushers.

"So could we come away and say out of the 12 picks - if we use all of them - seven or eight could probably be on defense? Yes. But they will be the best players at the time we pick them."

Newsome said the team likes this year's safety class and sees at least one in all seven rounds that it could take.

The pundits are all over the board with their predictions for who the Ravens will take in the first round.

Each of CBS Sportsline's four analysts had a different pick at No. 32 of their mock drafts - USC wideout Robert Woods, LSU inside linebacker Kevin Minter, Florida State offensive tackle Manelik Watson and Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh.

At ESPN, Mel Kiper's latest mock draft has the Ravens taking Minter and Todd McShay has them selecting Florida safety Matt Elam.

So, two have Minter going to the Ravens, two have them taking offensive tackles, one has a wide receiver and one a safety. And don't forget the longtime buzz that they could end up with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, or the possibility of them trading up or out of the first round.

We shall see in a matter of hours.