Ravens lay out top three offseason priorities

Asked toward the very end of Wednesday’s State of the Ravens press conference what he perceives as his team’s biggest need this offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome displayed a rare bit of candor.

Instead of dancing around the question or making a generic statement about needing to improve as a whole, Newsome came right out and listed three areas he hopes to bolster:

Offensive line, wide receiver and pass rusher.

There you have it.

The first area on that list will probably be Newsome’s biggest focus. While the Ravens expect to return three of their five starters along the offensive line (including left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has one year left on the contract he signed just before the start of the 2011 season), there’s a good chance they’ll need to fill two starting spots along the interior of the line.

Unrestricted free agent guard Ben Grubbs is unlikely to return next season, meaning the Ravens will need to either move Jah Reid inside to guard or bring in someone through the draft or free agency who is capable of filling in at Grubbs’ left guard spot.

Center Matt Birk says he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll be back next season or will retire after 15 years in the NFL, but I’d be a little surprised to see Birk return and strap on the pads again in 2012. Backup center Andre Gurode is also an unrestricted free agent, and while he’s told Newsome he’d like to return next season, the Ravens want to get younger at the position.

With that in mind, I expect them to target a center fairly early in the draft. Regardless of what happens with Birk and Gurode, Newsome guaranteed there will be a new center (coming either via the draft or free agency) on the roster next season.

Also, don’t be surprised if the Ravens look to add another tackle through free agency or the draft. McKinnie will be 33 in September, and right tackle Michael Oher hasn’t really lived up to his first-round status.

Nearly the entire wide receiving corps will be back next season, with the possible exception of Lee Evans. After being acquired for a fourth-round pick in a preseason trade with the Bills, the 30-year-old wideout made just four catches during an injury-plagued 2011 season, and then, as we’re all aware, had the potential game-winning touchdown pass knocked out of his hands in the AFC championship game.

Simply put, Evans will not be a part of this team in 2012 unless he agrees to restructure his contract. He’s owed $3.2 million next season with a $1 million roster bonus due on March 18. Even if Evans does agree to re-work his deal and take less guaranteed money, the Ravens will still look to upgrade a wide receiving corps that lacked a true No. 3 target behind Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith.

Newsome’s third area of focus - pass rushers - will be an interesting one given veteran defensive end Cory Redding and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson are set to become unrestricted free agents.

The team will have some tough decisions regarding those two, who still have something left in the tank and are key locker room guys. Even if one of both of the veteran duo of Redding and Johnson return, the Ravens will still look to upgrade a pass rush which recorded 48 sacks during the regular season but only one in two postseason contests.

“You don’t ever have enough pass rushers,” Newsome said. “So, if that guy is there, we’ll entertain that also.”

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