I’ve been among those banging the drum for the Ravens to take a pass rusher in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, but it’s very possible that at No. 16, they're in a spot where an edge rusher might not represent the best value.
Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and Stanford's Solomon Thomas could go Nos. 1 and 2 in the draft, and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett likely will be gone within the top 15 picks, if you trust the various mock drafts. There’s a good chance Temple’s Haason Reddick will be as well, but I’m not sure I’d categorize him as an edge rusher anyway.
So whom does that leave? No. 16 is probably a little too early for UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, who is explosive but raw, and it’s certainly too early for Taco Charlton, who didn’t become a starter until his senior year at Michigan. Off-the-field questions probably have pushed Alabama’s Tim Williams to either the late first or early second round. Missouri’s Charles Harris might make the most sense at No. 16 among the edge rushers, but that still seems a bit early for him. It’s tough to find anybody who considers him one of the top 16 players in the draft.
So unless the Ravens trade back into the 20s or Barnett falls, it might make sense for the Ravens to use their second-round pick (47th overall) on an edge rusher. It sounds like the Ravens are pretty high on Houston’s Tyus Bowser and Kansas State’s Jordan Willis. One of them could be there at No. 47, and so could Williams or Auburn’s Carl Lawson. It seems unlikely that Charlton or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt would fall to 47th, but it’s not completely out of the question, either.
If there is a player in this draft who best embodies what team officials like to call “Playing like a Raven,” it has to be Alabama’s Ryan Anderson. The 6-foot-2, 253-pound outside linebacker is tough, nasty and relentless, both in pursuing the quarterback and knocking around running backs and tight ends. He also sets a pretty mean edge and is completely comfortable doing all the dirty work on defense while teammates get the glory.
In evaluating Anderson, you can’t help but think of former Alabama and Ravens outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Courtney Upshaw, who possessed those same attributes. Anderson had 14 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles over his final two college seasons, but evaluators question whether he has the necessary explosiveness to be a successful NFL edge rusher. The Ravens probably are looking for an outside linebacker with a little more pass-rushing upside. But there is a place on any team's roster for a guy with Anderson’s skill set. He’s expected to be taken in the second or third round.
One receiver who's worth keeping an eye on in the middle rounds: Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford. I haven’t heard his name mentioned by anybody directly associated with the Ravens, but the 6-foot-1, 194-pound receiver is a good route runner who uses his size and athleticism well to make contested catches. He would fit well in the Ravens’ current receiver group. I ran into former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. in Indianapolis before the first day of the NFL scouting combine, and he brought up Ford as one of the receivers he really likes in this class. That’s a good enough recommendation for me.
It seems to most Ravens fans that the most egregious thing general manager Ozzie Newsome could do with his first-round pick Thursday is use it on Alabama’s Cam Robinson, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk or another offensive lineman. I’m not advocating that, by any means. Because the Ravens have had some success in finding offensive linemen in the middle rounds, and because this year’s offensive line class is relatively weak, I’d hold off on looking for help there until the middle rounds and attack some other needs early.
But here are three reasons you shouldn’t be surprised if Newsome takes Robinson, Ramczyk or even Western Kentucky guard-tackle Forrest Lamp:
1. Team officials have mentioned trying to build a dominant offensive line that can mimic the Dallas Cowboys'. How did the Cowboys do it? They used the ninth overall pick on top left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, the 31st overall pick on standout center Travis Frederick in 2013 and the 16th overall pick on stud guard Zack Martin in 2014. Their other starting guard, La’el Collins, is a first-round talent who went undrafted in 2015 because of significant off-field issues. Their other starting tackle, Chaz Green, was a third-round pick in 2015. That’s a ton of assets spent on an offensive line, but the Cowboys have used them to build the best unit in the game.
2. Newsome, in the past, has shown a tendency to take a "better" player rather than the best available player at a position of need. So at No. 16, instead of settling for the fourth- or fifth-best pass rusher or the third-best receiver, Newsome might choose to take the best offensive lineman on the board. It’s very possible that no offensive linemen will go within the first 15 picks.
3. Ravens officials this offseason undoubtedly took note of the size of the contracts given to some offensive linemen — see Rick Wagner, Riley Reiff and Kevin Zeitler — and know the cost of solid free-agent linemen is only going up over the next couple of years. It would have to be enticing to add another first-round pick to a group that includes Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis and know that, for all intents and purposes, four-fifths of your offensive line is set for the next couple of years.
There’s an expectation that Newsome will try and trade back in the first round, and that certainly fits his profile. He’s made a trade in every draft he’s led except one. The Ravens also have made it clear that they’d like to get a few more picks, and that’s how they'd do it.
However, as former longtime Dallas Cowboys executive and current Sirius XM NFL Radio host Gil Brandt explained to me late last week, trading back this year might be more difficult than ever because the strength of the draft is its depth, not its star power. “There are so many players from 10 on down that all look alike,” Brandt said. “I think everybody would like to get additional choices. There’s going to be some good players in rounds three and four and five.”
Think about it: There are so many good corners in the draft, and if a cornerback-needy team is picking late in the first round, there’s no incentive to trade up because a quality cornerback will fall to them either way. The same probably goes for pass rushers. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard is a guy, however, who might prompt a team to trade up if he falls a little bit.