When the Ravens first moved to Baltimore in 1996, the lifeline of the organization was the annual NFL draft because the team didn’t have enough cash to land the best players in free agency.
Sixteen years later, that philosophy hasn’t changed.
With the draft three weeks away, the Ravens held their annual predraft luncheon at The Castle on Tuesday, and it is safe to say there won’t be any big splashes when the first round begins April 28 in Las Vegas.
The Ravens have 10 total picks, including nine in the first four rounds and four in the top 100. After making a few big signings in free agency, they still have glaring holes at pass rusher, interior defensive line, middle linebacker and offensive line. They’d also like to acquire more depth at outside linebacker and cornerback.
The Ravens might move up or down a few slots to draft a particular player, but they’d prefer to remain status quo.
“I think we do have a lot of flexibility, which is something that we covet — having the chance to move up and down,” general manager Eric DeCosta said Tuesday. “Sometimes, you get into a situation, we see it with other teams, where they want to do a trade with us and they want to maneuver, but they don’t have the picks to do it. Sometimes, you can’t find the combinations to do that. So, having picks in the first, second, third and fourth round, and then also a sixth-round pick, I think, gives us the flexibility to do whatever we want to do.”
The Ravens are bucking a recent trend by the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the last two Super Bowl champions. Before winning the title in 2020, Tampa Bay signed quarterback Tom Brady, running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Antonio Brown in free agency and traded for tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Before the start of last season, the Rams traded for quarterback Matthew Stafford, then acquired outside linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. later in the year.
The Ravens are in a different situation. Brady was calling the shots for the Bucs and the Rams were willing to toss away draft picks in their “win now” campaign.
The Ravens are more than a player or two away from winning the Super Bowl, and DeCosta won’t abandon the approach used by his predecessor, former general manager Ozzie Newsome.
In 1996, DeCosta was hired as a personnel intern and later became a Midwest scout before eventually taking over as GM in 2019.
“I really think it speaks to the culture that we’ve established over the years,” DeCosta said. “We weren’t a big team. I was here, we weren’t a big spender in free agency back in 1996 and back in 1997. We didn’t have the funds to do that, so the draft really became our lifeblood. I had a chance to watch Ozzie and [former director of player personnel] Phil Savage before me and see how those guys operated and see the value of the draft and what that does for a franchise, what that does for a community and how that also allows you to be competitive every single year, regardless of the salary cap. So, for us, it works.
“There are a lot of different ways to do it, certainly. I have tremendous respect for teams that have a way of doing it differently and can succeed, but for us, the draft will always be … as long as I’m here, will always be the foundation of what we do and what we believe in, and we think it works for us.”
It is hard to argue against the Ravens’ philosophy. They’ve been one of the NFL’s most consistent and top franchises since winning the Super Bowl in 2000.
But since the DeCosta era began three years ago, they haven’t been able to draft a rookie who has made a significant impact. They’ve had some success, but there hasn’t been a major difference-maker on the field and in the community except for perhaps running back J.K. Dobbins, who was taken in the second round in 2020 but missed all of last season with a knee injury.
DeCosta knows the difference a player like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs can make on a franchise. The Ravens are overdue.
They have quarterback Lamar Jackson, about to enter his fifth year, but few know about his definitive long-term plans these days.
It’s a guessing game with the draft as well. The predraft luncheon is always interesting because it is filled with deception. Members of the front office staff will say some things to persuade other teams about possible picks, and it’s hard to determine the truth.
But the consensus from most of the draft experts is that this class has a surplus of pass rushers and cornerbacks and a good crop of offensive linemen and interior defenders.
The Ravens agree and didn’t rule out selecting a cornerback despite the expected returns of starters Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, both of whom suffered major injuries last season.
“I think we’re definitely concerned,” DeCosta said about the cornerback depth. “We feel like Marlon is going to come back with a vengeance. We feel like Marcus is going to come back with a vengeance. But we feel like behind those two guys, the depth is thin. There are opportunities for us in the first round, second round, third round.
“Coach [John Harbaugh] has been watching the corners. We feel like we have the opportunity to take one or two corners in the draft that can come in and contribute right away, we’re excited about that.”
The same can be said about the Ravens’ lack of depth on the offensive line and the possible return of Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), but at least they have possible starters in Ja’Wuan James and Morgan Moses. The Ravens are desperate for pass rushers, and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II would form quite a pair with second-year outside linebacker Odafe Oweh.
Any one of those Georgia defensive linemen, Travon Walker or Jordan Davis, would fit nicely into the Ravens’ front line, too.
Regardless, the Ravens should be able to fare well with so many picks. The last time they made 10 selections was in 2020, and there are still a number of those picks in position to start.
But again, there were no game-changers. DeCosta hasn’t produced any with his first-round selections, including receiver Marquise Brown in 2019 and linebacker Patrick Queen in 2020.
The verdict is still out on Oweh, the No. 31 overall pick in last year’s draft, and receiver Rashod Bateman, the No. 27 overall selection. This year brings a new opportunity to find a star.
“I think the last couple years we’ve had more guys,” DeCosta said of the team’s evaluation of draft-worthy players. “I don’t know if our scouts were more optimistic or if it was just more players. But we have approximately … and it’ll change, because we have another set of meetings coming up next week, but we have about 180 players, I think, give or take, on the front board that we think are draftable players for the Ravens. That number will probably be somewhere between 170 to 195 players when it’s all said and done.”