Ravens might not draft for need, but they keep an eye on future

Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams was counted on more heavily in 2014 after playing a supporting role his rookie season.

Before the NFL turns over the league's calendar each year, top Ravens officials join owner Steve Bisciotti in Florida for a comprehensive look at the upcoming season and the one that will follow it, taking into account roster construction, salary cap issues and free agency.

That long view — knowing potential roster holes before they become glaring — has informed the team's draft over the past several years. Salary cap constraints forced the Ravens to say goodbye to stars Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata this spring, and previously priced them out of the market to retain players like tackle Michael Oher and defensive end Arthur Jones.


Ravens officials often insist they do not draft based on immediate need. In many cases, however, a player drafted the previous offseason -- with a year of experience in the team's system -- was ready to step in the next season, giving the team the freedom to avoid drafting for need that year and put a rookie into a situation that's too big for him.

That year of apprenticeship behind the outgoing veteran proves useful for several reasons, players and coaches said.


"The year when I was not really playing that much definitely helped me the most, because I was around the plays a lot more, and I was focusing a lot more on just knowing the plays," said defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who took a starting spot on the defensive line in 2014 after Jones departed in free agency that spring. "Then once my second year came, and I had that starting role, I felt a lot more comfortable in how I play, what calls were going to be made."

That mental side is only one aspect that makes a second-year player more effective. They also have a full season in an NFL conditioning program, something rookies only get a taste of.

"Right now when they first arrive, it's just basically survival for them, and we know that and they know that," strength and conditioning coach Brian Rogucki said last week. "So, it's just give them a little bit, a little bit and progress as we go.

"There's a big jump from the time that they're [first arriving] here to when they return [for their second season], because once they arrive here, it's very busy, and we're a small piece of the pie," he said. "We're just trying to introduce to them [a program], because they're here to play football. They have to learn offense, defense and special teams. … Then from there when they return, they have an idea, because now the football is catching up to where they need to be."

Williams is one of two players from the 2013 draft class who benefited from a year in the classroom, on the practice field, and in the weight room in advance of a starting role. Tackle Rick Wagner assumed the starting role from the departed Oher ahead of the 2014 season, and became one of the best young players at his position.

Entering the 2015 draft, every meaningful departure via free agency or trade occurred at a position where a deputy was added in the 2014 draft. Second-round defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who spelled Ngata at times in 2014, will do so as a starter in 2015. Michael Campanaro moves up the wide receiver depth chart with the loss of Smith to San Francisco. Crockett Gillmore will get more tight end snaps with Owen Daniels gone, as will safety Terrence Brooks in place of the departed Darian Stewart, once Brooks recovers from a late-season knee injury.

And though he was injured in 2014, defensive end Brent Urban was added to the Ravens' stable of pass rushers a year early to mitigate the loss of McPhee, a hybrid end and outside linebacker.

A handful of position groups fit into this category of restocking a year in advance for the 2015 draft. Both of the Ravens' starting guards, Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, are in the final year of their contracts. Despite the presence of 2014 fifth-round pick John Urschel, who could step in, adding another guard this year could ease a transition from either or both of them.


Though he splits his time with Elvis Dumervil opposite Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw is the nominal starter at outside linebacker, and is in the final year of his rookie contract as well. So is cornerback Asa Jackson, who is slated to be the team's third cornerback.

If the recent pattern holds true, outside linebacker and cornerback could also be draft-day targets for the Ravens to mitigate their potential departures.

The strategy isn't foolproof. For every Williams and Wagner, there are plenty of players who were groomed for bigger roles after their rookie seasons who never grew into starters. And then there are players like inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who ably to stepped in to start as a rookie, or 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam, who might have been forced to start too quickly and saw his progress stalled.

But in Williams and Wagner a year ago, and potentially Jernigan and others this coming season, the Ravens have had success in drafting for needs down the road. The returns on this season's draft class might not really be seen until 2016.