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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Ravens’ draft record soon to be tested | COMMENTARY

The Ravens have a reputation of being one of the best teams in the NFL as far as the college draft, but that will be examined more thoroughly within the next two seasons.

Nearly a week into the first wave of 2021 free agency, the Ravens are virtually no better or worse than they were at the end of last year when they finished the regular season at 11-5 and were eliminated in the divisional playoff round for the second straight season.

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Here’s a recap from the week: The Ravens signed 31-year-old guard in Kevin Zeitler, a solid upgrade from a year ago, to a three year, $22.5 million contract and agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal with 31-year-old defensive end Derek Wolfe.

Ho-hum. Everyone yawn.

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There is still hope the Ravens might add a veteran or two in the next wave of free agency. Right now they are on course to make another early postseason exit, but there is hope from previous drafts and the upcoming one. All players in Year 5 or under have to perform well this season. The assumption here is that based on a limited salary cap and a one-dimensional offense, the Ravens can’t attract a top-caliber wide receiver or a big-name pass rusher.

Instead, they will settle on signing bargain-basement free agents later and drafting rookies who can make an immediate impact.

The Ravens were fortunate in drafting rookies of that caliber last year. Middle linebacker Patrick Queen, the No. 28 pick overall, led the Ravens in tackles with 102. Running back J. K. Dobbins, selected by the team in the second round, rushed for 805 yards on 134 carries and became a great one-two punch with halfback Gus Edwards.

Looking to a rookie to make a significant contribution is a gamble but so is the draft itself. If a team does it well, then that’s a major asset and the Ravens have that type of credibility.

It was hard to see them coming out of free agency with a No. 1 receiver, especially since the Ravens have spent more money on a long snapper than a wide receiver. Let’s not kid ourselves. Unless it’s a seasoned veteran near the end of his career who wanted a ring more than a lucrative contract, a big-name receiver doesn’t want to play in an offense where the forward pass is considered a secondary option.

The Ravens still might end up with a No. 2 receiver such as Sammy Watkins or T.Y. Hilton, which wouldn’t be bad for this offense, but they could select a top-rated receiver such as LSU’s Terrace Marshall, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman or Purdue’s Rondale Moore in the first round.

Also, the Ravens have some young, unproven talent on the roster such as second-year receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche, who didn’t have a chance to work in several minicamps or in the preseason last year. Both have shown good hands and the ability to run good routes, and Duvernay has excellent speed.

But again, it goes back to young players stepping up.

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On defense, the Ravens lost outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency to the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Raiders, respectively, and Judon’s absence will hurt because he was the team’s most complete linebacker.

Maybe in the first round the Ravens take an edge rusher such as Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh or Miami’s Gregory Rousseau. But at the same time, fifth-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser needs to become more consistent as a pass rusher and so does fellow outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, a second-round pick in 2019 who has been stiff and one-dimensional mostly relying on power moves.

As of now, the Ravens aren’t bringing back weak side linebacker L.J. Fort who was sixth on the team in tackles last season, so this is a great opportunity for second-year player Malik Harrison, drafted in the third round out of Ohio State last year. Proche was selected in the sixth round last year and defensive tackle Broderick Washington was taken in the fifth. Maybe they can develop and become starters like Judon and safety Chuck Clark, who were both late-round picks by the Ravens.

The lack of a big-name surprise by the Ravens early in free agency is not a surprise. When you’re in a position to win a championship, you go out and make a splash if that’s the one player who finishes the quest to win a championship. The Ravens aren’t one player away. They still need a center. Left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is expected to return by the time training camp starts, but no one can say if that injured ankle will be 100%. And then there is Orlando (I Am a Left Tackle) Brown Jr, who might be traded by the start of the season.

The Ravens have just as many concerns on defense even though the re-signing of Wolfe was needed because it gave them strength and continuity.

It’s still early in the offseason and parts can be added or subtracted. Regardless, the Ravens can take the next step toward possibly advancing in the playoffs if the younger players perform well.

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It would be a great indicator if that draft record is truly legitimate, or overrated.

Free agency, so far, speaks for itself. Run Lamar, run.


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