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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Ravens avoid risk of taking a pass rusher in first round of NFL draft and are worse off for it | COMMENTARY

The Ravens better hope defensive end Jermaine Johnson II can’t play.

They had three chances to select the Florida State star and Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday night but declined, instead picking Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the No. 14 overall pick and Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum at No. 25 in a wild first round that was full of surprises in Las Vegas.

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Both Hamilton and Linderbaum are highly rated, but Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta came into the draft saying the team’s top three needs were at pass rusher, offensive tackle and cornerback. The Ravens left without filling any of those positions and needing a No. 2 wide receiver after they traded Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for the No. 23 overall pick in the first round, which they later traded to the Buffalo Bills for the 25th pick and a fourth-rounder.

It sounds confusing, and Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson apparently wasn’t happy about seeing his best friend on the team sent off to Arizona. If the Ravens couldn’t get a new multi-year extension done with Jackson during the 2021 regular season, it’s unlikely that will happen now.

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Ahh, poor Lamar.

The NFL is a business and is all about winning, even though after Thursday night you didn’t walk away from The Castle believing that the Ravens were a better team. Not after Round 1, at least.

The reluctance to select Johnson was interesting because many of the draft experts had rated him among the top 10 players, but there had to be some red flags. Maybe it was the loud yellow and black sports jacket he wore, or something was hidden in his medical report. But he was worth the gamble, which the Ravens are no stranger to. They did it with players like outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Chris McAlister. They turned out all right.

Once Hamilton was secure and the Ravens got back in the first round via trades, they should have selected Johnson. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the top players at those positions take over in the postseason. If you can’t contain them, you can’t win.

The AFC is loaded with talented quarterbacks like Denver’s Russell Wilson, Indianapolis’ Matt Ryan, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Kanas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson, Las Vegas’ Derek Carr and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. That’s eight — not including Jackson — battling for seven playoff spots.

And the Ravens don’t have anyone who can consistently put pressure on those guys. There are no Aaron Donalds or T.J. Watts in Baltimore. In fact, they haven’t had one for four years, which is why they’ve been one-and-done in the playoffs. Last season, Johnson had 70 tackles, including 17 1/2 for loss and 11 1/2 sacks. The 6-foot-5, 254-pound edge rusher ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds.

Maybe he is a gamble, but the NFL isn’t full of alter boys. The New York Jets took him at No. 26, one pick after the Ravens’ second selection.

Whenever you look at great defenses, you have to focus on the front four. If they can get pressure on the quarterback, they win. Actually, they dominate.

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The Ravens, though, claim they stay true to their board, but that really is situational. When they selected cornerback Duane Starks in 1998, he was considered a stretch. They actually tried to trade the No. 24 pick in 2002 but there were no takers. Instead, they ended up with eventual Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.

Sometimes, you have to take risks, especially when filling a major weakness.

Both Hamilton and Linderbaum are good players. But the Ravens already have three safeties on the roster in Chuck Clark, Brandon Stephens and Marcus Williams, who signed a five-year, $70 million contract this offseason. How many safeties do you need? Is new coordinator Mike Macdonald going run some new four-safety configuration?

The 6-4, 220-pound Hamilton will have a presence in the middle, but is he going to consistently blitz off the corner? Linderbaum is a good selection and the Ravens have a need at center. His coach at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz, was one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL and his addition will give Baltimore an opportunity to move Patrick Mekari to one of the tackle positions if left tackle Ronnie Stanley hasn’t fully recovered from his ankle injury by the start of the season.

The trade of Brown was needed. He was a No. 2 receiver at best who was eventually going to ask to be paid like a No. 1. He had trouble with hand placement and wasn’t consistent in catching the ball. To be honest, he was soft, and he’ll go play with a soft team in Arizona. The Jackson-to-Brown combination probably had to be broken up because both need to grow up, and it would’ve been hard for that to happen in Baltimore.

This is a major draft for DeCosta. It’s unfair to criticize his last two because there hasn’t been much time for development, but that 2019 crew featured Brown in the first round and outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and receiver Miles Boykin in the third. Well, both Brown and Boykin are gone and Ferguson hasn’t been a factor.

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And on Thursday night, the Ravens didn’t fill any of their major needs. They said that might happen over the next two days, where they’re loaded with picks, but that’s where you take players who are basically identified as projects.

And the Ravens can’t wait any longer for pass rushers to develop.

They better hope Johnson can’t play.


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