The visible reminders of general manager Ozzie Newsome’s drafting and team-building prowess have remained untouched during the ongoing $45 million renovation project at the Ravens’ Under Armour Performance Center.
Take a couple of steps into the foyer of the training facility and you’ll see the Hall of Fame bust of offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, Newsome’s first-ever draft pick for the Ravens. To the right of that is a small statue of linebacker Ray Lewis, the organization’s second-ever pick who will all but certainly have a Hall of Fame bust soon. Look to the left and there are the two Lombardi Trophies, shimmering proof of the Ravens’ ascent as an organization.
Newsome’s sterling reputation as an executive and evaluator is well-earned. His drafting record, however, wears the blemishes of recent early-round misses that have become more pronounced since the Ravens’ victory in Super Bowl XLVII. As Newsome and the Ravens front office enter another draft Thursday night, the pressure is on perhaps more than ever before to cash in on their seven picks and fill several holes on a roster that hasn’t been good enough to make the playoffs in three of the past four years.
“Whether those last two or three drafts have not been maybe equal to some of the other ones, to me, you have to get better,” Newsome said at the team’s predraft luncheon this month. “You always have to get better.”
The Ravens, who will pick 16th overall in Thursday's first round, don’t have a single player remaining from their eight-man 2012 draft class. All but two players from the post-Super Bowl 10-man 2013 haul – nose tackle Brandon Williams and reserve offensive lineman Ryan Jensen – are gone.
Of the team’s seven second- or third-round selections from 2014 to 2016, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan was the only one of them who regularly contributed last year and he’s been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for improved positioning in Friday’s third round.
“The process in 1996 was the same as it was then, and it’s the same as it is today,” Newsome said when asked about some of the recent draft misses. “We try to refine it. We put pressure on ourselves to get better, but to sit here and say why that happened, I can’t pinpoint it.”
Nobody, other than a small, yet vocal, segment of the Ravens’ fan base is suggesting that Newsome, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz have completely lost their drafting way. Several of the high-profile draft analysts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, annually praise the way the Ravens work the draft, finding value in each round and sticking to their board.
Gil Brandt, the decorated former personnel man for the Dallas Cowboys and a current SiriusXM NFL Radio host, studies team performances in the draft and said of the Ravens: “They probably do as good of a job as anybody in the league as far as evaluating players. They have a system and their scouts know how to use it.”
The rule of thumb has been that a good draft – particularly for a team that traditionally picks in the middle or later stages of a round – is one that yields three multiyear starters. If that’s the gauge, the Ravens' front office’s recent performance is best described as uneven.
The 2012 draft was a disappointment after Courtney Upshaw and Kelechi Osemele, two players who were instrumental in the team’s Super Bowl run and had solid runs in Baltimore, headed elsewhere. Now a Raider, Osemele made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and is one of the best guards in the NFL.
For all the hand-wringing about a brutal league-wide 2013 draft, which started for the Ravens with the selections of safety Matt Elam and inside linebacker Arthur Brown, two of the biggest busts of Newsome’s era, that draft produced Brandon Williams in the third, fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth and right tackle Rick Wagner in the fifth. This offseason, Williams, by the Ravens, and Juszczyk, by the San Francisco 49ers, became the highest-paid players at their positions in the NFL. The Detroit Lions made Wagner the second-highest-paid right tackle, behind Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson.
Getting middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and perhaps the Ravens’ best defensive player, with the 17th overall pick in 2014 was a coup, but the rest of that class has been hit hard by injuries (Crockett Gillmore, Brent Urban, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Michael Campanaro) or unfulfilled potential (Terrence Brooks).
Breshad Perriman’s development, which stalled when he missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury, will largely determine how the 2015 class is remembered. However, whether it was because of injuries or limited opportunities, tight end Maxx Williams, defensive tackle Carl Davis, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and running back Buck Allen made little to no impact last year.
The Ravens benefited immediately from their 11-man 2016 haul. First-round tackle Ronnie Stanley, fourth-round cornerback Tavon Young and fourth-round offensive guard Alex Lewis were effective starters as rookies. Running back Kenneth Dixon and pass rusher Matthew Judon, fourth- and fifth-round selections, respectively, both flashed great potential. Second- and third-round picks Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi are in line to compete for starting jobs this summer.
“It’s hard to evaluate one draft and say Ozzie is losing it or DeCosta is losing it. You have to look at the big picture,” said Matt Miller, the lead draft writer for Bleacher Report. “The ’15 draft for them doesn’t look great with the first two picks, but I still think Carl Davis can become a very good player. He’s in the right scheme for that to happen. I think the 2016 draft was great. You got four starters out of the draft."
Miller chalked up the criticism of the Ravens drafting to a “microwave society, [where] everybody wants it right now.”
“It’s a lot harder to be consistently picking late in the round or in the middle of the round and you already have a roster that’s good,” Miller said. “It’s like with Correa. He was a very good player [at Boise State]. A lot of people liked him. He just couldn’t get on the field. That doesn’t mean he was a bad pick. It just means they have a pretty good roster right away. Let’s see what he does this year or next year.”
If there’s an overriding criticism of the Ravens' recent drafting, it stems more from their performance on the second day of the draft. The second round has produced some duds, with Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody in 2010 and Brown in 2013. Early returns from Maxx Williams and Correa in 2015 and 2016 have not been good. The third round has also been hit-or-miss with Jah Reid (2011), Bernard Pierce (2012) and Brooks (2014) qualifying as major misses.
Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta recently listened to a question about the team’s Day 2 drafting and reminded reporters that the team found Ray Rice, Torrey Smith and Osemele in the second round and Brandon Williams and Marshal Yanda in the third.
With four of the top 78 picks in a very deep 2017 draft class and plenty of opportunities to come in and play right away, the Ravens need to come up big again on Friday’s Day 2 and reverse a recent troubling trend.
“You’d like to nail all of your second-round picks,” DeCosta said. “Historically, only about 50 percent of all second-round picks end up becoming pretty good players. We’ve done a really good job in the fourth and fifth rounds lately. I don’t know why. It can be frustrating at times, but it is what it is.”