As NFL draft approaches, Ravens near a potential crossroads at quarterback

It’s been a full decade since the Ravens faced the greatest question that can confront an NFL team going into the draft.

What to do at quarterback?

We know Joe Flacco will be the starter next season, but for the first time since he was drafted in 2008, it’s not clear what lies beyond at the most important position in pro football.

Many analysts believe the Ravens will take advantage of an unusually deep quarterback crop to select a signal caller in the second or third round of this year’s draft. That player could back up Flacco in 2018 and become a candidate to start if/when the Ravens move on from their high-priced franchise player.

Some draft experts have even projected the Ravens to take a quarterback in the first round, speculation they helped fuel by scheduling a pre-draft visit with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

All the quarterback talk is mitigated by owner Steve Bisciotti’s statement in February that the Ravens have “bigger fish to fry” than finding Flacco’s eventual replacement.

“Top two or three [rounds], maybe?” said NFL Network analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick. “First round, wait a minute, there. First, let's remember, Joe's not done, and no matter how you couch it, to bring in that heir apparent before a guy thinks he's done is not good. It does not go well typically. Also, there's a lot of work to do, and to expend a first-round draft choice on a quarterback that ostensibly won't see the field, that'd be pretty strong.”

Regardless, it’s a conversation we have not heard around these parts in a generation.

The Ravens added an extra layer to the intrigue when they signed former No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III as a potential backup for this season. But general manager Ozzie Newsome and his successor, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, said that would not dissuade them from drafting a quarterback.

“We will grade the players, set the board, and if there’s a quarterback that we feel that we can pick at any of our picks, we’ll do it,” Newsome said.

It’s possible none of this would be a talking point if the 2018 class were not so rich at the premium position. As many as six quarterbacks — Sam Darnold of USC, Josh Rosen of UCLA, Josh Allen of Wyoming, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, Jackson and Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State — could go in the first round. That hasn’t happened since the famous quarterback draft of 1983, headlined by John Elway and Dan Marino.

But that year, another quarterback did not go off the board until the fifth round. As strong as this year’s class appears to be at the top, it’s nearly as stocked with appealing second- and third-round options.

Scouts view Kyle Lauletta of Richmond, Luke Falk of Washington State and Mike White of Western Kentucky as passers with significant NFL potential, and others such as Tanner Lee of Nebraska have demonstrated the physical tools to wow some franchises.

“I think this is a really, really strong quarterback class,” DeCosta said. “There’s probably eight or nine guys that have a chance to come in and over their first contract, be guys that have a chance to start, play effectively, compete and be winning players. That’s a good number. Obviously, at the top, you have four, five or six guys that have a chance to be really good players, we think. That’s going to make this first round very interesting.”

Teams in need of quarterbacks

The Ravens aren’t the only team assessing possible candidates for succeeding a veteran star. The New England Patriots with Tom Brady, the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees and the San Diego Chargers with Philip Rivers are all in the same boat.

The problem, DeCosta said, is that with so much interest around the position, there could be an inflationary rush to draft quarterbacks.

“I think the fact that those quarterbacks are going to go so high is going to force other teams — there is going to be a panic that sets in for teams that didn’t get one of those four guys and they’re probably going to overreach on some of those other guys,” he said.

Conventional wisdom says that because of Bisciotti’s comments and because Flacco is locked in for this year at least, the Ravens are more likely to target a quarterback on day two instead of in the first round.

But in an early mock draft, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the team, projected the Ravens to use the 16th overall pick on Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner.

“I think it's something that you have to consider,” he said of Newsome plucking the team’s next starter in round one. “The level of play at the quarterback position for the Ravens has not been up to par the last few years, and you can look at the supporting cast. But look, some of that criticism of Joe Flacco is legitimate. … I think you do your homework on this group of quarterbacks, no question, and it goes back to … if you can hit on a first-round quarterback and live off that rookie number, you can build up the rest of your roster pretty quick.”

Sports Illustrated draft analyst Albert Breer has said he’s intrigued by the Ravens’ interest in Jackson, the 2016 Heisman winner. The Louisville star has drawn comparisons to Michael Vick because of his sensational running ability, and Breer noted the success Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had in designing plays for Vick with the Philadelphia Eagles.

‘Most electrifying player’

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said he expects some team to fall in love with Jackson and design its future offense around his unique skill set. Mayock called Jackson “the most electrifying player in this draft.”

“I would tell you that the most nervous 31 people in the league would be the defensive coordinators that would have to play against him,” he said.

Even as a rookie, Jackson could offer a sharp counterpoint to Flacco’s traditional dropback passing skills. But would the Ravens want to create that level of drama at quarterback when they have immediate needs at several other positions?

Former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer is as bullish on Jackson and this quarterback class as anyone. He knows many of the players well, having coached them in the Elite 11 program for top prep quarterbacks.

But he’s skeptical Newsome would use a high pick on a quarterback.

“I think Joe is still a top-tier quarterback in this league. He’s still young enough, and they have too many other needs,” said Dilfer, who’s about to launch a new series of “Soul and Science” segments on the NFL Network, featuring him and sports scientist John Brenkus analyzing the quarterback class.

“It’s sexy to say you’re going to take a guy in the second round, and he’s our future,” he added. “But then you have 52 other guys on the roster saying, ‘Why the hell did they do that? We’re trying to win on opening day.’ ”

For all the emphasis placed on scouting these players, drafting a quarterback remains, far more often than not, an exercise in futility.

That’s true in the first round and even more true in subsequent rounds.

We remember the incredible, franchise-transforming hits — Brady in the sixth round in 2000, Brees in the second round in 2001, Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012. But history says the league is more likely to go several years in a row without any significant quarterback emerging from outside the first round.

The Ravens, for example, have used 11 picks on quarterbacks since they came to Baltimore in 1996. Flacco, at 18th overall in 2008, was their biggest hit. But Tyrod Taylor, a sixth-round pick in 2011, was the only other success in the bunch. And he mostly delivered his impact in another city.

Such a failure rate is the norm, not the exception.

Of course, we understand why teams keep trying (they’ve picked an average of 11.5 quarterbacks a year in the 22 drafts Newsome has run for the Ravens): It’s almost impossible to build a perennial Super Bowl contender without a franchise quarterback at the heart of the roster.

A top signal caller on a rookie contract is the greatest bargain in the sport, affording a team enormous flexibility to stock the rest of its roster. We saw it with Wilson in Seattle. We saw it last year with second-year star Carson Wentz lifting the Eagles to the promised land (though they relied on back-up Nick Foles, a former third-round pick, to win the Super Bowl). It’s no coincidence that the Ravens achieved the most successful stretch in franchise history when Flacco was playing on his initial deal.

Conversely, the Ravens of recent seasons have paid enormous sums for a less effective, more injury-prone Flacco. And they’ve fallen into mediocrity.

Drafting a quarterback in the first few rounds, for the Ravens or any team, is one of the highest-risk, highest-reward propositions in the sport.

There are those, such as Dilfer, who believe the NFL is getting better at developing young quarterbacks, with more creative coaches tailoring their systems around individual players’ strengths.

“They’re more willing to grow it around a person instead of sticking a square epg through a round hole,” he said.

But the history remains daunting.

“I don't care if you have the first, fifth, 10th or 15th pick, if you're going to draft a quarterback, you'd better say he's a franchise quarterback,” Billick said. “And you've got guys [this year], it is pretty rich. Now, are they all going to be franchise quarterbacks? History will tell us no.

“There's no reason this group, all the way down to Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson ... there's no reason they shouldn't be good NFL quarterbacks. There is no reason Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Kyle Boller, Jake Locker — I mean, the list goes on and on — there's no reason those guys shouldn't have been good pros. So it's a 50-50 crapshoot.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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Staff reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.

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