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Mike Preston: Ravens need to hit home runs in the draft to be serious contenders | COMMENTARY

In the 2020 NFL draft, the Ravens selected several rookies who made an immediate impact. They need to have similar success this year if they want to be serious contenders in the AFC.

In baseball vernacular, the Ravens need to hit a couple of home runs, starting with the first round April 29 in Cleveland. The team made modest improvements in free agency by adding guard Kevin Zeitler and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but they are still basically the same team they were a year ago, minus outside linebacker Matthew Judon.

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The Ravens haven’t closed the gap between themselves and the top two teams in the conference, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. They don’t have a top pass rusher, nor a big-time receiver on the outside. Until they find those pieces, they are the same Ravens they have been the previous two years.

But if they can find rookies who can contribute immediately, similar to how linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins did last season, they might be able to go deeper in the postseason than the divisional round.

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There are plenty of top edge rushers in this year’s draft, including Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh and Texas’ Joseph Ossai.

Who’s the best? The Ravens should be able to get one with the No. 27 overall pick, but they can’t afford to miss.

They need to find another Peter Boulware or Terrell Suggs, both outside linebackers who were named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Remember when Boulware held out of training camp his rookie season in 1997 but had two sacks in his first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles? There were rumors that former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was break dancing in the press box during that game. Boulware recorded 58 tackles and 11 ½ sacks that season on his way to a Ring of Honor enshrinement by the Ravens.

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As a rookie in 2003, Suggs had 29 tackles and 12 sacks, and he also forced five fumbles and knocked down three passes. Suggs was eventually named to seven Pro Bowl teams in what many consider a Hall of Fame career.

Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh gets around a block during a game against Michigan on Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh gets around a block during a game against Michigan on Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Carlos Osorio / AP)

Now, that’s not to say that the edge rusher the Ravens select has to be as good as Boulware, the No. 4 overall pick, or Suggs, the No. 10 overall pick. But they need a player who can disrupt the passing game and not allow quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to sit in the pocket, drink a cup of coffee, eat a sandwich and smoke a cigarette before throwing.

The Ravens need a pass rusher because they can’t consistently count on Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson and Pernell McPhee to be that type of a threat at this time.

The Ravens have a similar situation on offense. They upgraded the passing game slightly with the addition of Watkins, but he doesn’t change the dynamic. The Ravens are no different than any other NFL team in seeking the prototype at the position.

They want a big, strong, fast receiver on the outside who can block, but is still quick enough to beat press coverage. That player would be the perfect complement to receiver Marquise Brown on the outside, Mark Andrews at tight end and Watkins playing multiple roles on the outside or in the slot.

With quarterbacks projected to go early in the draft, the Ravens should be able to get a good receiver in the first two rounds from a group that includes Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr., Florida’s Kadarius Toney, Mississippi’s Elijah Moore, North Carolina’s Dyami Brown and Tennessee’s Josh Palmer.

The Ravens are aware of their need to add more weapons because they have to balance a run-dominant offense. They know that quarterback Lamar Jackson can carry this group with his legs, but not his arm. Jackson is entering his fourth season, which is when most experts agree that he should be close to the top of his game.

The start of the 2021 regular season is still months away and a lot can change. Traditionally, the Ravens have not been overly aggressive at the start of free agency, but they made solid moves with the additions of Zeitler and Watkins.

Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney runs with the ball during Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 27, 2021.
Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney runs with the ball during Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 27, 2021. (Matthew Hinton/AP)

It’s safe to assume that young players such as Queen, Dobbins, linebacker Malik Harrison, defensive tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington, guard Tyre Phillips and receivers James Proche II and Devin Duvernay will improve with strong offseasons in the weight room and several minicamps, if NFL teams are allowed to get back to in-person training.

But there are still a lot of questions. The Ravens need a center, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. might be traded and there won’t be any definitive answer about left tackle Ronnie Stanley until he returns to the field after his season-ending ankle surgery in 2020.

The Ravens have several new coaches, and they also have to sign several players to contract extensions, including Jackson, Andrews and possibly Brown. The window of opportunity is slowly closing.

It’s a lot of pressure to put on an organization, but it’s the result of the Ravens’ recent success. They’ve been to the playoffs three years in a row, including two divisional-round appearances. They finally beat their nemesis, the Tennessee Titans, in a postseason game on the road last season.

The Ravens like to be in this position. It’s better than struggling to be a .500 team, like when they first moved to Baltimore in the mid 1990s.

All drafts are important, but this one is crucial. In the words of Ravens great and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, “Where would the Ravens rather be than where they are right now?”

In the Super Bowl, which is why home runs are needed in this draft.

NFL DRAFT

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Cleveland

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April 29-May 1

TV: ESPN, NFL Network

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