When the Ravens are on the clock Thursday night with the sixth overall draft pick in the NFL draft, they'll have several enticing defensive options. Depending on what happens in front of them, the Ravens could choose a relentless pass rusher or a physically imposing defensive end, a freakishly athletic inside linebacker or a lockdown defensive back.
Finding the best fit from that group, however, may be more difficult than it sounds. Whether it has to do with health, size, position or ability to adapt to the Ravens' defensive schemes, each of the draft's top defensive players comes with a significant question.
Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa is the draft's top pass rusher, but his ability to play in a 3-4 scheme is an unknown. A knee injury has made UCLA inside linebacker Myles Jack a high risk-reward proposition. Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner is a physical specimen. He's just not the polished pass rusher the Ravens covet.
The Ravens need a cornerback, but some evaluators believe Florida State's Jalen Ramsey is an NFL safety and Florida's Vernon Hargreaves lacks the prototypical size and speed on the outside.
"I think it's six of one, half dozen of the other," said Sirius XM draft analyst Gil Brandt when asked about the Ravens' options. "Whoever they get, they are going to get a quality player."
The Ravens' decision Thursday will hinge on how the three picks ahead of them unfold, after the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles take quarterbacks with the first two picks. The potential availability of Mississippi left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who was considered the likely first overall pick just two weeks ago, adds another wrinkle to the Ravens' decision.
All along, it's been widely believed the Ravens would use their first pick on their defense, which is thin on pass rushers and cornerbacks and is without a starting inside linebacker after Daryl Smith's exit.
"I think they've lost a little bit of their identity on the defensive side of the ball, and the best way to get that back is to invest in the front seven and just kind of double down there," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout. "They've got some good players on that front, but they need more blue-chip, difference-making players in the front seven."
Ravens officials predictably haven't tipped their hand in the pre-draft process. The closest anyone came to saying the team is leaning toward drafting a defensive player first is when assistant general manager Eric DeCosta joked that scenario would get the better odds in Las Vegas.
"There are probably five or six really elite defensive players when we're picking," DeCosta said. "There's a lot of good defensive talent in the top 10 in this draft. Saying that, we think there are a couple of elite left tackles in this draft, too. We're going to draft the best guy regardless, because as we've often said, your needs can change week to week."
There has been no outside consensus on what defensive player fits the Ravens best. Jeremiah believes Buckner's size (6-foot-7, 291 pounds) and skill set translates well to a team that loves big and athletic defensive linemen and let go of starter Chris Canty earlier this offseason.
Ideally suited as a 3-4 defensive end, Buckner could immediately slot into Canty's spot and give the Ravens another imposing run stuffer and interior pass rusher alongside Timmy Jernigan. However, the Ravens are well stocked with defensive linemen and at least one prominent draft analyst doesn't believe Buckner's pass-rush skills will be as impactful on the next level. Buckner had 10 1/2 sacks and 17 tackles for loss for the Ducks last season.
"He's not a consistently dominant player — doesn't always play to the level of his talent, I didn't think," ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. said. "But when you have the length, you have the huge hands, and you flash like he does, you're going to go in the top 10. I just didn't see him finish some plays. I thought he got away with some sacks in college that he won't get in the NFL. Buckner is a hard one for me to really go definitive and say he's going to be a really great player. I don't see that right now."
Kiper, meanwhile, raved about Bosa, saying the defensive end knows "every trick in the book." Bosa terrorized offensive tackles and had 26 sacks and 51 tackles for loss over three college seasons despite getting regularly double teamed. He has the intangibles — effort, work ethic, toughness — that the Ravens love and he'd give the team another pass-rushing threat with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Za'Darius Smith.
However, Bosa would also likely have to learn a new defensive scheme, and adapt to dropping into coverage on occasion. He admitted at the NFL Scouting Combine that it would be an adjustment after playing in 4-3 defenses. Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said Bosa is plenty athletic to make the transition, but questions remain.
"They would have to modify the 3-4 to make him a fit," said Phil Savage, a former Ravens and Cleveland Browns executive who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl. "It would be a little bit of a square peg in a round hole, but it could be done."
When Savage reviews the Ravens defense, he sees the need for more speed in the middle of the field, which is why he cited the drafting of Jack as the most logical move to play alongside C.J. Mosley. The former UCLA standout was athletic and explosive enough to play some running back in college.
DeCosta said Jack can cover "as well as most guys you'll ever see at the linebacker position." That, his ability as a blitzer, and his versatility to play on the outside, makes him an intriguing package for the Ravens. However, there is the knee issue, which has reportedly made some teams leery. Jack had surgery in September and didn't run for teams in the pre-draft process.
"There's some concern long term about his knee and it could require another surgery if something happens with the cartilage, but it's probable he's going to be fine for a while," said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. "If you're looking for a reason not to draft him, that becomes one."
Ramsey is a player the Ravens have had their eye on for a while, although it remains doubtful he'll still be on the board at No.6. A top-notch athlete, the former Seminole has the size (6-foot-1, 209 pounds), speed and physicality to make a seamless transition to the NFL. But there are evaluators who question why he had only five interceptions in three college seasons, and wonder whether his versatility at Florida State could work against him.
"Jalen basically played three positions during his time at Florida State. He's played the slot. He's played the safety type of position, and then he played outside the numbers as a base corner. He has shown the ability to play good football at all three, but he hasn't been able to master any of them," said Louis Riddick, a front office insider for ESPN. "He's also showed deficiencies in them. I think there's a lot of uncertainty with what you're going to get from this player at the NFL level."
Riddick predicted Ramsey would struggle with smaller and quicker receivers in the NFL. Hargreaves, the former Florida standout, is actually considered the better pure cover corner. However, Hargreaves is just 5-foot-10 and he ran a 4.5 40 time. Neither is ideal, although the Ravens expressed no such concerns.
"I don't think he's an elite corner," Kiper said of Hargreaves. "I think he's a No.2 corner."
Still, like Ramsey, Jack, Bosa and Buckner, Hargreaves would have a good chance of starting from Day One. All are near locks to be taken within the first 10 picks of the draft. Now, the Ravens just have to wait and see who will be available and decide who will be the best fit.