Top 10 draft needs: No. 7 - Special teams

Top 10 draft needs: No. 7 - Special teams
April 18, 2013, 10:00 am
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In the 10 days leading up to the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, April 25, we are counting down the Ravens biggest needs heading into the draft.

Today, it's No. 7: special teams

The marquee positions on special teams -- kicker, punter and return specialist -- appear to be pretty well etched in stone with Justin Tucker, Sam Koch and Jacoby Jones all returning. Long snapper Morgan Cox is back as well.

But special teams play also involves the less glamorous jobs such as punt coverage and kickoff return blocking. It's underappreciated but hugely important work, and that is where mid- to late-round draft picks always have their chance to make their mark on the team.

The Ravens have lost the de facto captain of the special teams unit, as Brendon Ayanbadejo was released. Corey Graham came to Baltimore eager to shed the 'special teamer' label he wore in Chicago, and he did that with a strong year at cornerback. But he remains a big part of the special teams unit as well. Look for him to become one of the leaders of the unit.

Gino Gradkowski frequently played on the kick return unit last year, but he figures to be the starting center this season so his role on special teams is likely to be reduced. Ayanbadejo is gone. Backup safety Sean Considine and backup tight end Billy Bajema, both of whom played a lot of special teams last season, are free agents and have not re-signed with the Ravens.

That leaves several holes, which very well might be filled by draft picks. The Ravens won't be drafting specifically to fill a kickoff cover spot, but a rookie draft pick's ability on special teams often dictates whether he makes the final 53-man roster.

The Ravens special teams was much improved last season compared with 2011. They gave up no return touchdowns during the regular season (though they did give up two at Denver in the playoffs). Their average kickoff return of 27.3 yards led the league. They allowed 23.2 yards per kick return, which ranked 13th in the league after ranking 31st a year earlier.

Jones surely grabbed most of the special teams headlines, but players at the bottom of the 53-man roster also made that special teams success possible. And with several of those players gone, the Ravens will look to the draft to replace them and keep this unit running in top condition.

Here's a look at the Ravens' top 10 needs entering the NFL Draft:

10 - Edge rusher

9 - Offensive guard

8 - No. 3 tight end