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Steelers insider: Ravens positioned for favorable draft

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he will end his brilliant NFL career after the Ravens complete their 2013 playoff run. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he will end his brilliant NFL career after the Ravens complete their 2013 playoff run. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File)

The Baltimore Ravens might be the first Super Bowl champion to qualify for comeback team of the year the following season.

It seems the nightmarish Ravens offseason — one that saw the champs shed eight starters via free agency, retirements and releases — has taken a 360-degree turn with the pickups of several key players, including pass rush specialist Elvis Dumervil.

And one of the intriguing storylines of the three-day NFL Draft that begins Thursday night will be what the Ravens do with their 12 draft picks over seven rounds, including five in the first four rounds. With that many picks, the Ravens could easily trade up in multiple rounds to fill some of their remaining needs, including that for a safety (Ed Reed's replacement), middle linebacker (Ray Lewis' replacement) and left tackle (Bryant McKinnie's replacement).

In Baltimore, it's a case of believing in general manager Ozzie Newsome — who continues to excel as one of the league's most astute judges of talent and experts in assembling a roster — and assistant GM Eric DeCosta.

“Despite what a lot of other people think … this could be a good football team,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I love Ozzie and (DeCosta) because I think they are patient. I don't think they are making impulsive decisions.”

There was genuine concern in Baltimore after the NFL champions were quickly disassembled weeks following the franchise's second Super Bowl win, over the 49ers in New Orleans. Reed signed with the Texans, Lewis carried out his plan to retire, and center Matt Birk retired with him. McKinnie wasn't re-signed, safety Bernard Pollard was released in a questionable move, and pass rush ace Paul Kruger (Browns, $40 million) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Dolphins, $35 million) signed lucrative contracts elsewhere. And, in a tough-to-understand move, playoffs star Anquan Boldin, the game-altering receiver the Ravens had sought for years, was traded to the 49ers for a mere sixth-round draft pick.

First, the Ravens spent a lot of money — arguably too much — on quarterback Joe Flacco, giving him $120.6 million over six years. They also signed Dumervil away from the Broncos after his agent was late in returning a signed contract to Denver. They also added defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and former Raiders safety Michael Huff, who will fill in for Reed for now

With all those draft picks, the Ravens will have unrivaled flexibility during the draft, which could help them pick up a receiver to replace Boldin, who had 22 catches and four touchdowns during the playoffs.

“They've done some really good things in free agency,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “That's alleviated some of the concerns and some of the forces you need to deal with on draft day. I think they've given themselves some flexibility.”

Who might the Ravens look to add at No. 32, if they choose to stay there? Kiper targets Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o as a possibility, along with LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien and Florida safety Matt Elam.

One reason Te'o might interest the Ravens is his ability to play the pass. He led the BCS with seven interceptions last season. Plug him in the middle, and the Ravens' occasional struggles to defend the pass might be lessened. They allowed 7.7 yards per pass attempt with Lewis on the field last season, according to ESPN.

The Ravens might be able to find a workable safety or inside linebacker as late as the third round, depending on what they do in the first two rounds.

Baltimore also will benefit next season from the return of cornerback Lardarius Webb, who missed the final 10 games of the season and the postseason with a torn ACL.

Favorable schedule

College basketball coaches believe there are two rapid-fire ways to turn around a struggling program: Recruit well. Schedule well.

Having a favorable schedule in the NFL can help, too, and it appears the Steelers do in 2013.

According to the website, the Steelers own the NFL's third-easiest schedule. The only two teams judged to have easier schedules are the Eagles and Browns.

Several factors go into the equation, including the two opponents a team plays based in its finish the previous season. So while the Steelers are playing a third-place schedule, which gives them games against the Raiders and Titans (two teams that beat them last season), the first-place Ravens get the Broncos (on the road) and the Texans. Pretty fair swap there for the Steelers.

The Steelers also play the AFC East, which produced only one winning team (the Patriots, 12-4) in 2012. The Dolphins were 7-9 and the Jets and Bills were 6-10. They also get the Lions (4-12), although the other three NFC North teams (the Packers, Bears and Vikings) all won at least 10 games.

Of course, scheduling isn't everything; the 2008 Steelers played what was later judged to be the hardest schedule ever played by a Super Bowl winner.

Overall, though, it's a 16-game season that even noted schedule-for-wins expert Jim Boeheim could admire.

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