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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ predraft news conference

Sports columnist Mike Preston and Ravens beat writer Jonas Shaffer discuss Ravens free agency and possible picks in the 2021 draft.

The Ravens will have plenty of opportunities to select quality players at their positions of need, but don’t expect them to go wild adding picks in next week’s NFL draft.

Here are five things we learned from the team’s predraft news conference Monday:

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The Ravens will have plenty of choices at their positions of need.

One of the few things we can say with certainty about the 2021 NFL draft is that the Ravens will not trade up to take a quarterback in the first round. So of course, when general manager Eric DeCosta was asked to list the deepest positions in this year’s class, that’s where he started. Such is life at the annual “liars luncheon,” where DeCosta, coach John Harbaugh and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz preview the draft.

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After he finished praising players the Ravens won’t pick, however, DeCosta got to a more important truth: this draft class is rich at positions where the Ravens are not as strong, namely edge rusher, wide receiver and offensive line.

Though DeCosta made it clear he will never abandon the “best player available” mantra he learned from his predecessor, Ozzie Newsome, he probably won’t need to reach to fill some of his roster’s most obvious holes.

We’ve spent the past three months focusing disproportionately on these three areas of need after the Ravens’ passing offense came up short in a playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills and after their two leading outside pass rushers departed in free agency. DeCosta painted a rosy picture of the draft stock at each position, noting that the talent does not fall off sharply after the first round.

On offensive linemen: “You’ve got tackles, you’ve got guards, you’ve got some centers in the first couple rounds, guys who can really come in and impact your team.”

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On edge rushers: “We see probably somewhere from five to eight guys in the first couple rounds that would have a chance to come in and really be legitimate edge-setter, pass-rusher type of guys that can do multiple things for you.”

On wide receivers: “That was a strong position last year. I think it’s a strong position this year. You’ve got a bunch of guys in the first three rounds that really can come in and compete to be significant players for you early on.”

The Ravens could still use a Day 1 or Day 2 pick on a ball-hawking safety or an interior pass rusher, but given the alignment of need and talent, DeCosta’s comments seemed to confirm what we’ve expected for his shopping list.

Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) runs a route against Maryland linebacker Ahmad McCullough (19) during a game Oct. 30, 2020, in College Park.
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) runs a route against Maryland linebacker Ahmad McCullough (19) during a game Oct. 30, 2020, in College Park. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Expect the Ravens to draft a wide receiver, but not necessarily in the first round.

The signing of Sammy Watkins did little to quiet fan discontent over the position that has long vexed the Ravens. It did nothing to dissuade draft analysts from pairing the Ravens with Terrace Marshall Jr. and Rashod Bateman in their first-round mocks.

Hortiz said the Ravens have their eyes on both players. He praised Marshall, the physically imposing LSU star who’s been mocked to the Ravens by ESPN analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr., as an appealing blend of size, speed and versatility. “Obviously, throughout his career, he’s shown an ability to produce from different platforms of an offense,” Hortiz said, nodding to a quality the Ravens covet at the position.

Read between the lines, however, and it seems DeCosta and Hortiz perceive as much wide receiver value in rounds two and three as they do in the first round. So if they rate an edge rusher or an offensive lineman above Marshall and Bateman at No. 27, they will probably wait to add their next wide receiver, much as they did with third-round pick Devin Duvernay last year.

“It is a deep class,” Hortiz said. “Last year was a deep class, and I think next year is going to be a deep class. I think there’s more and more players coming out at that position who are developed. The way the college game is going, I think we’re going to continue to see it. It’s a unique class because there is versatility; there’s a lot of outside guys, a ton of slot players. There’s value throughout the draft. Our board is stacked throughout, there’s not a couple high guys and then a gap.”

Does that sound like a guy who feels pressure to come out of the first round with a wide receiver?

DeCosta also bristled at the familiar criticism that the Ravens are understocked at wide receiver, indicating the hopes they retain for Duvernay and 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin. “I’m aware there’s some fan discontent with our wide receivers and our drafting and all that,” he said. “We’ve got some really good young receivers. It’s insulting to these guys when they hear we don’t have any receivers. It’s quite insulting. I’m insulted by it too, to be honest.”

Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari (13) celebrates with his teammates after a sack against Mississippi State on Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens, Ga.
Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari (13) celebrates with his teammates after a sack against Mississippi State on Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens, Ga. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Variety is the spice of this year’s high-end pass rushers.

If we’re to believe the mock drafts, the Ravens might be in position to choose between three or four intriguing edge rushers at No. 27 overall. They could certainly use an infusion of young, cheap talent at a position where they’ve lost their most productive players over the past three years and have not reloaded.

Hortiz and DeCosta said little to dissuade us from looking in this direction as we puzzle out the first round.

“It’s a strong draft for edge pass rushers across the board, basically in any round,” DeCosta said. “There’s certainly some players we like at the top of the board, in the first round or the second round. But as we look at the depth of the draft, we see really good players at that position, outside linebacker, scattered throughout. One of the things that really benefits us is our scouts and coaches are really aligned in the type of qualities we want at that position.”

He didn’t list those qualities, but we know setting the edge and comfort dropping into coverage are among them. The Ravens see that versatility in several potential first-round picks, including Azeez Ojulari of Georgia and Jayson Oweh of Penn State. Jaelan Phillips of Miami would fit the more traditional picture of a productive pass rusher.

“Ojulari is versatile, does a lot of things in that Georgia defense,” Hortiz said. “Oweh … came in as a developmental player early on. He’s taken on a greater role this year and shown the ability to be a three-down player. … All three of those guys, I can promise you one thing, when you put on the tape, you’re going to see competitive players that fit the Ravens’ style of football.”

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The Ravens will draft at least one offensive lineman, but they’re not hanging all their plans on that pick.

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DeCosta gave no hint of where trade talks stand regarding tackle Orlando Brown Jr. He also declined to comment on an NFL Network report that free-agent tackle Alejandro Villanueva was on the way to Baltimore for a visit. Harbaugh, meanwhile, said Bradley Bozeman will be equipped to start at either left guard or center.

In sum, the big picture hasn’t changed much since the Ravens signed free-agent guard Kevin Zeitler last month. They’re still piecing together their offensive line for 2021, and the eventual starters could come from free agency, the draft or a crowded pack of interior linemen who played for them in 2020.

DeCosta praised the depth of this offensive line class several times, and it would be a shock if he does not pick a player who could compete for snaps this season. At the same time, he said nothing to suggest he’s counting on the draft to provide a starting guard or center.

If Brown’s trade demand added any urgency, DeCosta did not betray it. “It doesn’t change things very much,” he said. “We’ve talked about the importance of the offensive line. That’s a constant. When you play the type of football we play, offensive line is always going to be a priority.”

With uncertainty at several positions — in addition to Brown’s trade demand, remember left tackle Ronnie Stanley is coming back from a serious ankle injury — it’s hard to imagine we’ll know a clean, clear starting five on the night of May 1.

“As far as where we’re at?” Harbaugh said. “We’re in process.”

Though volume is king, don’t expect DeCosta to go wild trading down.

When DeCosta was asked about the Ravens’ history of draft success, he steered away from specific players and pointed to the team’s long-standing zeal for accumulating picks through trade-downs and free-agent compensation.

“The draft, in many ways, is a luck-driven process,” he said. “If you have more picks, you’re going to hit on more good players. That goes back to a philosophy that Ozzie started back in 1996. We started really going after comp picks and trying to trade back as much as we could.”

Given his praise for the depth in this year’s draft, might that point to a trade back from the No. 27 pick? Not necessarily when we take into account DeCosta’s comments about how many players he wants to draft over the next two years — about 20, with the Ravens projected to have more picks in 2022 than 2021.

“If your team is stronger, if you think you have a pretty good roster, it’s tougher for guys to make the team,” he said. “So you don’t want to have 15 picks or 13 picks every year. This is a good draft. We see a lot of talented players at the starter level, potentially. So if we have the chance to get a pick or two extra, we’d probably do that. We don’t necessarily want to have 11 or 12 picks this year.”

Given their history, the Ravens will probably come out of the draft with more than the seven players they’re currently slated to pick, but they’ll be shopping for specific opportunities to improve their playoff chances, not stuffing their pockets at every turn.

NFL DRAFT

Cleveland

April 29-May 1

TV: ESPN, NFL Network

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