OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens moved quickly in free agency to enhance a defense that faltered in the latter stage of a disappointing 8-8 season.
General manager Ozzie Newsome fortified the backfield by signing cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Tony Jefferson. He also retained free agent nose tackle Brandon Williams with a $54 million, five-year deal.
“We came out of the gates quick, we were aggressive, really turning over every stone,” coach John Harbaugh said.
It’s a start, and the Ravens intend to take the next step in the NFL draft that begins Thursday and runs through Saturday.
“I do think we’re on our way to being better,” Harbaugh said, “and I’m excited about where we’re going.”
Even though the Ravens have already addressed a unit that yielded 114 points over the final four weeks in 2016, that doesn’t mean Newsome won’t select a defensive player with the No. 16 overall pick.
The retirement of Zachary Orr due to injury, the release of Elvis Dumervil and the advancing age of Terrell Suggs (34) means the Ravens need a pass rusher. Fortunately, Newsome has had a knack for finding quarterback-hunting linebackers in the first round ever since he took Ray Lewis at No. 26 in 1996.
Peter Boulware (1997), Suggs (2003) and C.J. Mosley (2014) also went in the opening round.
Cornerbacks Duane Starks (1998), Chris McAlister (1999) and Jimmy Smith (2011) proved to be solid first-round picks, and Newsome might consider adding a fourth to his resume because the Ravens remain thin at that position.
“We need to add more corners, there is no question about it,” Harbaugh said. “Corners that can play at the highest level. If we can do that, it is going to dramatically impact our defense.”
The Ravens have four picks in the top 78 of the draft, which works nicely for a team with a long list of needs. If they go for a wide receiver in the first round — a distinct possibility — they can take a cornerback later.
“This is a very strong year, corner-wise,” assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. “I feel confident that we will have the chance to address that position in the first three rounds if we want to.”
Though Baltimore brought back receiver Mike Wallace, the team is still looking for a deep threat in the wake of Steve Smith’s retirement.
Asked to name the best receivers available, DeCosta picked Mike Williams of Clemson and John Ross of Washington. Corey Davis of Western Michigan is also a candidate to become a new target for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
One problem, though: Newsome has drafted more than a few clunkers at wide receiver — most notably Travis Taylor at No. 10 overall in 2000 and Mark Clayton at No. 22 in 2005. The jury is still out on first-rounder Breshard Perriman (No. 26 in 2015), and that is why Baltimore is considering taking a receiver at No. 1 for the second time in three years.
“If we feel like the best player is at 16 and he’s a wide receiver, and we feel like he’s going to come in and help Joe and help the other guys,” Newsome said, “then we’ll turn in that card in a hurry.”