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Ravens will do more than scout next generation at combine

SportsFootballBaltimore RavensJoe FlaccoEconomy, Business and FinanceNFL Pro BowlJameel McClain

The football world's focus returns to Indianapolis this week, where more than 300 NFL hopefuls will participate in the annual scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Starting Wednesday and running through next Tuesday, the event, which comes two weeks after the city played host to the Super Bowl, is the biggest showcase for prospects before late April's NFL Draft. It also represents one of the first opportunities for teams to start shaping their game plans for the offseason.

The Ravens' top decision makers and scouts will be on hand, studying the draft class with a particular eye on finding help for the offensive line, passing game and pass rush. The Ravens will pick 29th overall in the first round on April 26.

However, their focus this week will also extend beyond the field. They are expected to at least touch base with the agents of quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice about potential contract extensions, which were stated offseason priorities for the AFC North champs. They also can speak further with the representatives of their 13 unrestricted free agents, who officially hit the open market March 13.

There might not be any huge developments this week, but there are obviously some things that the Ravens would like to get accomplished.

Break the ice on extension talks with Flacco, Rice

By now, everybody knows that Joe Linta, the agent for Flacco, is scheduled to meet this week with Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, who negotiates most of the team's contracts, to begin discussing the framework of an extension for the quarterback.

Linta, who made some waves when he talked about his client as a top-five quarterback, put the highly-discussed meeting in perspective when he told The Sun, "We're not going to have a press conference next Saturday to announce his extension. In order to do Joe Flacco's contract extension, we have to start somewhere. And that's sitting down and chatting, and that's what we're doing."

The Ravens want to make sure that Flacco doesn't enter the 2012 season as a lame duck quarterback in the final year of his contract. However, the more urgent matter is securing the future of Rice, the two-time Pro Bowl running back whose contract is up.

The Ravens have until March 5 to put the franchise tag on Rice, which seems to be little more than a formality. Not only will the tag ensure that Rice remains with the Ravens without getting an opportunity to shop his services elsewhere, it will buy the team and his agent, Todd France, some time to negotiate a long-term deal.

If the Ravens put the franchise tag on Rice, they'll have until July 16 to negotiate with the running back before he plays the season under the franchise tag and an expected $7.7 million salary.

As Linta observed in regard to Flacco, the talks have to start somewhere. To this point, there have been no developments in negotiations with Rice and this week would be a good time for groundwork to be laid.

Get a better feel for market of own free agents

Aside from Rice, the Ravens appear accepting of the reality that their 12 other unrestricted free agents, a group that includes three defensive starters and a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, will hit the open market. That, however, doesn't mean that the team doesn't maintain interest in retaining several of them.

Defensive end Cory Redding, linebackers Jarret Johnson and Jameel McClain, guard Ben Grubbs and special teams contributors Haruki Nakamura and Brendon Ayanbadejo are all guys that the Ravens have different levels of interest in bringing back. But as always, they'll will have to decide whether their price is prohibitive.

The Ravens have shown in the past that they are not afraid to make tough decisions and part ways with players who have been vital to their success. Guys like Johnson and McClain could find more money and more opportunity elsewhere, like in Indianapolis, where former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is now the head coach and has already mentioned that he'd like some of his former players to join him.

Grubbs, a former first-round pick who has developed into one of the team's best offensive linemen, also is expected to command a deal that may make it nearly impossible for the Ravens to keep him while addressing their other needs.

At the State of the Ravens address earlier this month, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said it will come down to "who will Ben keep us from getting and who will be have to let go in order to keep Ben? That's going to be the balance."

Finalize a plan to solidify the offensive line

It's pretty fitting that one of the first position groups to work out at the combines are offensive linemen. With Grubbs and Andre Gurode potentially leaving in free agency, center Matt Birk mulling retirement and left tackle Bryant McKinnie under contractual control for only one more season, rebuilding the offensive line is arguably the Ravens' top offseason priority.

The good news is that's considered one of the draft's strengths.

"I think there is a lot of flexibility with that interior offensive lineman draft," NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said. "I think for the first three rounds, you can get a lot of quality at center or either guard."

Some of the names that have already been connected to the Ravens with the 29th pick include tackle Mike Adams (Ohio State), guards David DeCastro (Stanford), Cordy Glenn (Georgia) and Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin) and center Peter Konz (Wisconsin).

All five will be at the combine and will undoubtedly be analyzed closely by the Ravens. The Ravens have long subscribed to the "draft the best player available" mantra and that has worked well for them. But at this point, it would be a mild surprise if they used the 29th overall pick on anything but an offensive lineman.

Whittle down their wide receiver options

Despite spending two of their first four picks in last year's draft on wide receivers and then acquiring veteran Lee Evans in a trade, the Ravens remain on the lookout for at least one more explosive receiving threat for Flacco.

Evans, whose end zone drop in the AFC championship loomed every bit as large as kicker Billy Cundiff's miss, is expected to either be released or have his contract restructured. If he is jettisoned, the Ravens figure to have their share of options to replace him and join a group of wide receivers that includes Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams.

The free agent class of wide receivers is filled with No.1 types including Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Reggie Wayne. There are also productive but less heralded options like Brandon Lloyd, Pierre Garcon, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem and Laurent Robinson in position to hit free agency.

The Ravens could also address that position in late April as some mock drafts have as many as six receivers going in the first round. Of that group, LSU's Rueben Randle, South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery and Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu could all still be on the board when the Ravens make their first-round selection.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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