There was a point in the 2009 regular season when it seemed the Ravens would absolutely, positively need to take a cornerback in the first round of the 2010 draft. Remember? Their pass defense had slipped into the lower half of the league rankings, and it was costing them games.
Months later, the situation looks quite different. The Ravens' pass defense improved quite a bit down the stretch despite several key injuries, lessening the sense that the ultimate investment -- i.e., first-round talent -- was so urgently needed there. Now it seems the Ravens' top offseason priority should be improving their receiving corps.
I agree. With most of the rest of the offense relatively young and on the rise, it is time to give quarterback Joe Flacco more dangerous targets.
There is always a chance the team's priorities could change again with free agency looming and the draft more than two months away. But I don't expect another change. Given the Raven receivers' struggles late in the season and the fact that they're all restricted or unrestricted free agents, the Ravens need to clear up the cloudy situation with either a high draft pick, free agent signing or trade that gives the team a new No. 1 receiver. (Allowing Derrick Mason to slip naturally into the No. 2 hole if he returns.)
The top receiver in this year's draft class, Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant, looks to be precisely what the Ravens need, a big, fast playmaker. But while they've been fortunate to have talented players such as Todd Heap, Ed Reed and Michael Oher fall to them in the lower first round, they won't get so lucky this year. Bryant will be gone.
That means the Ravens must either a) trade up to get Bryant, b) draft a different receiver at No. 25, or c) forget doing it in the draft and pull the trigger on either a free agent signing or a trade for a veteran pass-catcher.
Of those scenarios, the middle one is the most desirable. There's going to be more than one good receiver in this year's crop. Many of the league's best receivers weren't originally first-round picks. Among this year's Pro Bowl selections, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson and San Diego's Vincent Jackson were second-rounders, Atlanta's Roddy White was the fifth receiver taken in 2005 and Dallas' Miles Austin wasn't drafted at all.
With that in mind, I say thumbs-down to the idea of giving away a draft pick (or two) to move up and take Bryant. They're better off identifying a field-stretching receiver other than Bryant and taking him at No. 25.
The Ravens' fundamental strategy of holding onto their picks and building through the draft is the primary reason they win more games than they lose and have made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. They draft well. Their picks have value. When they trade away picks, they're trading away starters.
Of course, they have to find the right guy at No. 25, no easy task. Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard was the MVP of the Senior Bowl. LSU's Brandon LaFell is highly regarded. Florida's Riley Cooper reportedly impressed a lot of scouts during his Senior Bowl workouts. Are they, or any others, the right guy? It's too early to know. The Ravens have more studying to do.
But if they can identify one they like, that's the way to go. Sorry, the price for making a trade to acquire an allegedly available veteran such as Denver's Brandon Marshall or Arizona's Anquan Boldin is just too high. The Ravens would have to part with at least one high pick, quite possibly two. Then they'd have to give the guy a fat contract he might live up to. Then they'd have to hope he comes in with the right attitude.
Give me a talented, fired-up rookie over that any day.
As for filling the need with a free agent, that's going to be tough because of the expiring collective bargaining agreement. The Ravens can't sign a free agent until they lose one, and the guy they sign can't make more than the guy they lose. That means they probably can't make a bold move there.
They're better off staying at No. 25 and hopefully finding a receiver who can follow in the footsteps of Flacco and Ray Rice and become a young offensive cornerstone. That's the ticket.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.