On the first night of the NFL draft in early May, the Ravens will be in an unfamiliar position.
Accustomed to picking late in the first round during an impressive run of five consecutive postseason appearances, they will have a selection inside the first 20 picks of the draft for the first time since 2008.
The Ravens, obviously, would prefer to have the same unfavorable draft slot as they had last year, when they had the last pick in the first round after winning the Super Bowl. But in an interview with my colleague Aaron Wilson at the Senior Bowl this week, Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta suggested that picking either 16th or 17th -- it hinges on a coin flip -- is one silver lining after an 8-8 season.
"As great as it is to be picking at the end of each round, which is an indicator that you had a good season the year before, it's hard to find good players year after year at the back of each of these rounds, and the league has created a system that's really based on creating a sense of parity and an even level of playing field," DeCosta told Wilson. "It's exciting for us when we see the quality of this year's draft. With the top of the draft, we think we have the chance to get an impact player pretty quickly."
The influx of a record number of underclassmen, including a couple of intriguing quarterback prospects in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (who has a fan in Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome) and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, means that there is a good chance a top-10-type talent will fall to the Ravens in the middle of the first round.
But the draft history of the past decade shows that finding a Pro Bowl player in the middle of the first round is no guarantee. Of the 20 players selected with either the 16th or 17th pick since 2004, only five were ever selected to a Pro Bowl. Some of them became serviceable players and a few could be considered busts.
For example, take 2008, when the Ravens entered the draft with the eighth overall pick. The Arizona Cardinals took cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with the 16th pick, then the Detroit Lions took offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus. Both have become solid starters -- and both are now with new teams -- but neither player is special.
Those two players were sandwiched between a couple of good players, though. The Kansas City Chiefs took offensive tackle Branden Albert, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl this season, with the 15th pick. Three picks later, after a pair of draft-day trades, the Ravens selected quarterback Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
But while other teams have whiffed when drafting in the middle of the round, DeCosta seems confident that the Ravens will hit another first-round home run in May.
"If you consider the fact that quarterbacks typically will get drafted pretty high and add those guys into the mix, there's a really good chance that a good player is going to fall down to us," he said. "We've had some success in years past, thinking about years where we got [Terrell] Suggs, Haloti [Ngata], Chris McAlister. We've been able to find a very high level player from pick No. 10 on. We're excited about that possibility this year."
A list of recent 16th and 17th overall picks:
2013: QB E.J. Manuel, OLB Jarvis Jones
2012: OLB Quinton Coples, CB Dre Kirkpatrick
2011: OLB Ryan Kerrigan*, OT Nate Solder
2010: DE Derrick Morgan, OG Mike Iupati*
2009: OLB Larry English, QB Josh Freeman*
2008: Rodgers-Cromartie, Cherilus
2007: DT Justin Harrell, DE Jarvis Moss
2006: S Jason Allen, OLB Chad Greenway*
2005: DT Travis Johnson, OLB David Pollack
2004: OG Shaun Andrews*, MLB D.J. Williams
* -- denotes player was selected to a Pro Bowl