Fourteen years ago, the Ravens used the 10th overall selection in the 2003 NFL draft on outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had a prolific college career at Arizona State but scared off some teams with his sluggish performance in predraft workouts. Suggs is the Ravens' all-time leader in sacks and is still playing at a relatively high level, making the pick one of general manager Ozzie Newsome's best.
Yet, the Ravens haven't selected a pass rusher in the first round since.
With Suggs turning 35 this year, Elvis Dumervil no longer on the roster and the Ravens determined to rediscover a pass rush that was nonexistent for much of last season, this could be the year that changes.
The Ravens have needs at wide receiver, offensive tackle, center and inside linebacker, and their desire to improve their secondary has been one of the themes of an active offseason. But when they prepare to make the 16th overall pick in Thursday night's first round or when they're on the clock with one of their three selections on day two, finding a pass rusher will certainly enter the thought process.
"We're looking for the next [Suggs] or to get that economical pass rusher," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at last month's league meetings. "We better have the ability to rush the quarterback."
One of the hallmarks of great Ravens defenses of the past has been an ability to harass and punish quarterbacks. Last year's Ravens, though, had just 31 sacks — only six teams had fewer — and nearly a third of those left the organization with the release of Dumervil, the trade of Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles and Lawrence Guy's free-agent departure to the New England Patriots.
The Ravens will still count on Suggs, who is in the twilight of his career; third-year pro Za'Darius Smith, who had just one sack last year after finishing with 51/2 as a rookie; and Matthew Judon, a 2016 fifth-round pick who had four sacks in a promising first season. But team officials have been upfront about their desire to add to that mix, and they should benefit from a draft well-stocked with pass rushers.
"Just in terms of being able to rush the passer, there are probably 10 guys maybe in the first couple of rounds that have the ability to come in and help a team do that," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said at the team's annual pre-draft luncheon.
As always, the key for the Ravens will be finding the best fit for their 3-4 base defense, where the outside linebackers are also asked to set the edge against opposing running games. They'll certainly have plenty of guys to choose from.
Matt Miller, the lead draft writer for Bleacher Report, said where the Ravens are drafting at 16 is "kind of the sweet spot" for pass rushers. Presumptive first overall pick Myles Garrett of Texas A&M and Stanford's Solomon Thomas will be off the board, but Tennessee's Derek Barnett, Temple's Haason Reddick, Missouri's Charles Harris, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, Michigan's Taco Charlton and Alabama's Tim Williams could all be available.
A few from that class could drop into the second round, where available options also might include Wisconsin's T.J. Watt, J.J.'s brother, Houston's Tyus Bowser, Alabama's Ryan Anderson, Kansas State's Jordan Willis and Auburn's Carl Lawson.
"The pass-rusher class is deep at the top and middle rounds," said Bucky Brooks, a draft analyst for NFL Network. "I think you can find guys that can be perennial 10-sack-plus artists — guys in the second and third tier that have outstanding skill, may not have the athleticism or size that you like, but they have the ability to get to the quarterback. The challenge with any pass rushers are [finding] guys with the traits: first-step quickness, hand-to-hand combat skills, do they have the ability to go quickly to a counter when their fastball is taken away?"
In scouting circles, the Ravens are known for relying heavily on college tape and production. That doesn't mean they don't heavily consider testing results from the scouting combine or college pro days, but such numbers might not be weighed as much in the Ravens' front office as they are elsewhere.
That's one reason the Ravens have been connected so often to Barnett in the pre-draft process. Barnett broke Reggie White's record at Tennessee with 33 career sacks to go with 52 tackles for loss, but mediocre performances at the combine and his pro day have led some to question his athleticism and explosiveness.
"I was around Terrell Suggs a little bit with the Ravens, who is another guy that didn't test all that well. Man, he was plenty fast enough when you got on the football field. I think you see some of those same things with Barnett," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout. "I don't think he's quite at that Suggs level, but I think he's got a chance to be a double-digit sack guy at the next level, and I'd be shocked if he's not off the board by the 20th pick."
Reddick, a former walk-on at Temple, can play both inside and outside linebacker, which could be attractive for a Ravens team that has needs at both and values versatility. McKinley and Harris are both raw in some areas, but they play with the type of energy, explosiveness and toughness the Ravens covet. Some evaluators believe Williams is the best pure pass rusher in the draft, although significant off-field concerns could make him drop to the second round.
"It's hard to evaluate these edge rushers in some of these college systems," Jeremiah said. "Doing an edge rusher in the Big 12, where it is so much bubble screen right and left, you don't get a chance to see these guys really get a good, hard rush on people at times. That's a little bit of a challenge there with some of the changes to the college game."
Taking a pass rusher in the first round hasn't been the safest of picks. The 2013 draft was littered with first-round pass-rushing busts — Barkevious Mingo, Bjorn Werner, Jarvis Jones and Dion Jordan among them — but that was also considered one of the worst drafts in recent memory.
Teams had much more success in 2014 as the first round produced Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. Vic Beasley and Shane Ray came out of the 2015 first round.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have been content mostly to find pass rushers in the middle rounds, a formula that has produced decidedly missed results since the Suggs selection. Dan Cody (second round, 2005) and Sergio Kindle (second round, 2010) were two of Newsome's biggest misses. But 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger became a key player on the Ravens' Super Bowl team in 2012. Newsome also found Pernell McPhee in the fifth round in 2011 and Judon looks like a nice fifth-round find in 2016.
"If the guy is a really good first-round type player, they're going to go high in the first round and we haven't had a lot of high first-round picks," said DeCosta, explaining why the team hasn't picked a first-round edge rusher since Suggs. "The edge rush position is really hard because pass rushers are such a premium and they go very high in the draft. We've tried to address that in the second round and we haven't done it with as much success as we'd like to."
Thanks to a deep pass-rushing class, the Ravens will have another opportunity this week.