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Ravens insist they're in draft's sweet spot, but filling big need at No. 16 could be challenge

Ravens executives insist the team is in a good position in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft, poised to pounce if a player they covet falls and in prime trade-back territory if a team wants to come forward. They remind you that they drafted from the same spot last year and wound up with cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who had a promising rookie season, and they expect this year will be no different. When on the clock, they believe there will be a player available that will come in and help immediately, one they had ranked much higher than the 16th-best player in the draft.

Not everybody, however, believes that’s likely, given the characteristics of this year’s draft.

“Not really, no. I think that’s maybe just something you’re supposed to say. You never know when they have those press conferences. I don’t really believe much of that,” said Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and host of the Ross Tucker Football Podcast. “It seems to me that with the quarterbacks, there are 10 to 12 really good players. You talk to people who say there’s 10 to 15, somewhere in that range, and after that, the guy you take at 20 could end up being a third-round pick on other people’s boards.”

A statement that few would debate is that the strength of this year’s draft doesn’t match up well with the Ravens’ biggest needs. The wide receiver class has depth, but is limited in high-end options. There are several quality tight ends available, yet none of them are expected to be selected in the first half of the first round. Evaluators say it’s one of the worst offensive tackle classes in recent memory.

Mike Renner, an analyst for Pro Football Focus, ranked the positions in the draft and he had wide receiver as the weakest, offensive tackle as third weakest and tight end as fifth weakest.

At least in the opinions of some pundits, the Ravens are in no man’s land at 16 when it comes to an ability to plug their biggest holes.

“Well, the pundits are not picking players. Fortunately, we make our decisions on players,” Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. “We’ve got to make a pick at 16. There’s got to be somebody there that we like. We’ll have a good player there. It might be a wideout, it could be tackle, it could be a defensive lineman, it could be a quarterback, it could be a corner. Whatever it is, we’ve got to make a pick.”

General manager Ozzie Newsome has always adhered to drafting the best player available and as he prepared to run his final draft before he steps aside for DeCosta after the 2018 season, he vowed that drafting philosophy wouldn’t change this year. But more often than not with the Ravens’ first pick, the “best player” traditionally fills one of the team’s biggest needs.

This year, there is more pressure than perhaps ever before on the Ravens’ top decision-makers to get offensive help. The Ravens didn’t select an offensive skill position player in last year’s draft for the first time in team history and that decision was widely criticized as the offense struggled mightily last season, finishing 27th in the NFL in yards per game.

Newsome has never let media and fan scrutiny affect his decision-making. However, high-ranking team officials certainly understand that this draft comes at a critical time for the organization. The team hasn’t made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, one shy of tying a team record, and fan discontent is as high as it’s been in years.

Even after the team signed free-agent wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead, there is a thirst for the Ravens to use their best draft currency on offensive playmakers. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti seemed to acknowledge that earlier this offseason when he jokingly expressed doubt that the Ravens were going to use their first-round pick on a defensive tackle.

“I really think they have to go offense,” said Matt Miller, a draft analyst for Bleacher Report. “Joe Flacco hasn’t been Joe Flacco. He hasn’t played well the last few years. One way to combat that is to say, ‘Let’s give him some weapons to maybe try and get a better evaluation of him or to lift him up a little bit.’ I’m not a believer that John Brown and Michael Crabtree are the kind of guys to do that.”

Miller has done a series of mock drafts and he acknowledged that he’s had a hard time fitting the Ravens with a player at 16. He’s settled on Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, regarded as one of the top receivers in the draft. That pick would excite most Ravens fans, but it isn’t clear if the team values Ridley that highly.

Many evaluators believe Ridley and Maryland’s DJ Moore, the only two receivers considered likely to come off the board on the first day, are later first-round guys. The same holds true for the draft’s top two tight ends, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert. Meanwhile, the only tackle that seems certain to go in the first round is Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. He’s considered a day one starter at right tackle and he’d be a safe pick at 16, but are the Ravens really in a position to play it safe?

“All these guys, whether it be Ridley, whether it’d be Hurst or McGlinchey, they all still need to develop. They all still need to get better. And they would provide great value for a team like the Baltimore Ravens,” said ESPN front office insider Louis Riddick, dismissing the perception that the Ravens are in a bad spot at 16. “I like that part of the draft quite honestly. It may seem like no man’s land because the players there don’t have the same flair as a guy like Derwin James or all the quarterbacks or Roquan [Smith]. There are some good players there and the Baltimore Ravens will get one.”

The Ravens are traditionally maniacal about sticking to their board and not reaching on certain players to fill needs. That’s why it would be foolish to dismiss the chances of them using the 16th pick on a defensive player. If Smith, an inside linebacker out of Georgia; James, a Florida State defensive back; or Texas-San Antonio defensive end Marcus Davenport surprisingly fall, the Ravens would have to think long and hard about pulling the trigger on a piece that would further strengthen their defense.

They also figure to explore the option of trading back in the first round. If they could move back to a position where Ridley, Moore or Hurst would represent better value in their minds and get an extra draft pick or two in the process, that would probably be their best-case scenario. However, finding a trade partner might be difficult. In a draft defined by its depth, teams are expected to be stingier than ever in not wanting to trade mid-round picks.

“We’re right there in that sweet spot at 16, where we might get a great player or we might get a lot of action of other teams wanting to come up,” DeCosta said. “We may have the chance to go up and get a great player. There are all these different combinations. I kind of feel like I know who the players are going to be, but I’m not sure like what our involvement is going to be in that because we’re right there on that cusp of sort of being in that fertile area right at the top or being in that really nice area back where there are going to be a lot of good players available.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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