Like in previous seasons where they failed to make the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens put most of the blame for 2013 on an underachieving offense. This offense looked nothing like the opportunistic one that scored 24 points or more during every game of their 2012 playoff run. Instead the offense finished 29th in total yards(307.4 YPG), 30th in rush offense (83.0 YPG) and 25th in points per game (20.0 PPG).
The only silver lining came with a pass offense that was ranked 18th with 224.4 YPG. Most of that was the result of being down early in games and again, a dreadful run offense that could barely muster two yards a carry.
Only three months removed from the end of 2013, the Ravens' offense has improved greatly on paper. Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark are gone to be replaced by two-time Pro Bowler Owen Daniels. Dennis Pitta is healthy and hungry to get back to the top form he displayed two seasons ago. Steve Smith is in Baltimore, where he looks to start as a slot receiver. Michael Oher will no longer burn the team with false starts and it looks like Jeremy Zuttah will replace the inconsistent Gino Gradkowski at center.
The offense is now potentially good enough that the Ravens may want to improve the defense with the 17th overall pick. The only two substantial question marks on offense are at right tackle and running back. Right tackle could potentially go to incumbents Jah Reid or Ricky Wagner, though the Ravens do seem keen on drafting someone for competition's sake.
Running back is a little more complex if Ray Rice faces any missed time because of his domestic violence case. But even if Rice or Bernard Pierce miss time, it's not unheard of to find a stud back in later rounds. Especially since this year's class looks deep, it would be a major reach for the Ravens to get a back at 17.
The main position of need on defense is clearly free safety. James Ihedigbo did great starting at strong safety last year. Sadly, he was deemed a necessary casualty since 2013's first rounder Matt Elam is a better fit at strong safety. Ihedigbo is now in Detroit and Elam will start 2014 at strong safety.
Clinton-Dix is rated as this year's top safety. He could potentially go as early as the top 10, especially since he comes from the esteemed Crimson Tide defense. His speed and flexibility would complement Elam's hard-hitting ability. Dix is also known for being a secure tackler and a solid run stopper, two things that seemed to be lacking at times on the Ravens' defense last season.
Another thing going for Clinton-Dix is that he shares the same alma mater as Ozzie Newsome. Both Terrence Cody and Courtney Upshaw also played for the Crimson Tide. Not coincidentally, both players were drafted early by the Ravens in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
If Clinton-Dix is gone, that likely leaves Pryor as the top safety on the board. Pryor's physical style of play has drawn comparisons to Earl Thomas of Seattle. In addition to being a violent hitter, he's got a nose for causing turnovers. 2012 saw him lead the Cardinals with five forced fumbles.
While there's still a month until draft day, most experts have the Ravens going for offensive tackle or free safety in the first round. It may seem odd, but the Ravens could be using their first pick on a safety for the second year in a row. In addition, this would be the fifth consecutive year that the Ravens use their first pick on a defensive player.
The last time they drafted an offensive player first? Oher back in 2009. For some reason, the Ravens have opted to go defense first despite that unit being the strength of the team. The offense has done well enough most seasons, but it seems that most contributors there are either late-round picks or free agent acquisitions.
So while the rest of the NFL world may criticize the Ravens for taking safeties first in consecutive years, it's still a move that makes sense. The Ravens got themselves in this mess last season, primarily due to the horrific play of free agent Michael Huff. Huff didn't even last the whole season with Baltimore and his deportation forced Elam to FS, while keeping Ihedigbo at SS.
The Ravens may have caused this problem but I think Ozzie can fix it. Teaming Elam with Pryor or Clinton-Dix could help to form a strong defensive backfield and maybe provide the team with two young defensive superstars. Although no one outside of the Ravens' front office knows what they'll do, I think it's a good bet that the Ravens decide to get another safety in the first round.