There were 259 players taken in the 2021 NFL draft, and the Ravens didn’t care for a lot of them. The team’s last pick was the final selection of the fifth round, pick No. 184 of a 259-player class. General manager Eric DeCosta opened the Ravens’ post-draft news conference at about 4:10 p.m. Sunday; the draft wouldn’t end until about 6:50 p.m.
The front office was already looking ahead — to the undrafted ranks, to the second wave of free agency, to 2022. DeCosta had said weeks earlier that he wanted 20 picks over the next two drafts, a number that “keeps us young, but also experienced across the roster, and that should give us a chance to compete long term.” The Ravens entered the draft with nine picks, left with eight selections and began loading up for 2022, where their big board should be bigger and the fifth round probably won’t be their final round.
As Week 1 of the college football season kicks off this weekend, the Ravens have a projected 10 picks in next year’s draft, including nine in the first four rounds. That draft capital reflects not only the ripple effects of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s looming megadeal, but also perhaps the aftershocks of a coronavirus-altered 2021 draft and the expectations for a more normal predraft process in 2022.
Thursday’s Big Ten Conference showdown between Ohio State and host Minnesota encapsulated the novelty of this scouting cycle. There was a stadium packed with vaccinated Minnesota students. There were teams counting on “super senior” classes. And there were 31 NFL scouts in attendance, including one from the Ravens, all looking for intelligence — character testimonials, medical history, testing numbers — that has been harder to corroborate amid the pandemic.
“The sport itself is seemingly moving back to some kind of normalcy,” said Luke Easterling, an editor and analyst for USA Today’s Draft Wire. “If you look at it in terms of the 2022 draft, I think that’s what everybody’s hope was. The teams are hoping that it plays out that way, that we’ll have much more of a normal process. They’ll have more confidence in their evaluation process of these prospects and more prospects to choose from because of people taking that year off and that extra year of eligibility giving you a stronger class. It definitely makes sense.”
The pandemic changed scouting operations league-wide over the past two drafts, with front offices pulling scouts off the road and leaning on analytics departments to fill in the gaps. Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said before the 2020 draft that, with pro days disrupted, the team’s scouts would rely more on their network of school sources for medical information.
By the time the Ravens wrapped up this year’s draft, though, it was clear that 2021 was still an atypical year. While they hadn’t shied away from players with an injury history (wide receiver Tylan Wallace) or disappointing 2020 seasons (cornerback Shaun Wade), they had focused, DeCosta said, “most of our attention on big-school guys.” Seven of their eight picks came from Power Five conferences, and the one exception, Southern Methodist defensive back Brandon Stephens, started his career at UCLA.
“There were a lot more unknowns than scouts and teams are generally accustomed to having,” CBS Sports draft analyst Josh Edwards said. “So there was a little bit more discomfort there, I think. I think there was a little more uncertainty, maybe a little less confidence with picks this year.”
It didn’t take long for DeCosta to start stockpiling 2022 picks, even if that meant moving on from 2020 and 2021 picks. During the draft, the Ravens traded a fourth- and sixth-round pick for a 2021 fifth-round pick and 2022 fourth-round pick. That added to their collection of fourth-round choices in next year’s draft, which is expected to grow with compensatory picks for the offseason departures of pass rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue.
In late August, the Ravens traded Wade, whom they’d just taken with that traded-for pick, for a 2022 seventh-rounder and 2023 fifth-rounder. Then they dealt offensive lineman Greg Mancz and a 2022 seventh-round pick for a 2022 sixth-rounder. Then they traded second-year guard Ben Bredeson, a 2022 fifth-round pick and a 2023 seventh-round pick for a 2022 fourth-rounder.
Barring a trade that ships off picks this season, the Ravens should enter the 2022 draft with double-digit selections. That won’t necessarily guarantee a bountiful haul. As DeCosta acknowledged in April, the draft is a “luck-driven process.” But the more picks a team has, the more contributors they’re likely to acquire. And with the 2022 draft having what Edwards called a “deeper talent pool,” the Ravens could find far greater value in the middle to late rounds than in this year’s class.
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What the pandemic took away from the 2021 draft, it could give to the 2022 draft. An Associated Press report in February found that over 1,000 Football Bowl Subdivision “super seniors” would take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver for student-athletes and redeem an additional year of eligibility.
Even graduating seniors with NFL prospects came back. According to Inside the League, a consulting service that tracks prospects, five players who were invited to the Senior Bowl returned for the 2021 season. With draft-eligible underclassmen and departing seniors joining the super-senior cohort, the 2022 class should have the power in numbers that this year’s lacked.
More prospect information should be available, too. Because of travel restrictions and safety concerns, scouts have been limited in their ability to connect with sources on campus or evaluate players in person. While the Delta variant remains a worry, the vaccine has eased travel concerns.
“If you’re going into this draft process, and you have a guy who’s comparable, film-wise, and you just have one guy that you’re just not sure about the medicals, you can’t take that risk, right?” Easterling said. “So I think that will be probably the biggest change, if things do seem to go back to normal for this draft process. I think the ability to be confident in those medical evaluations is going to be critical.”
The Ravens’ draft board will change a lot in the next eight months, as team officials scrutinize breakout games, medical charts, GPS data and interview transcripts. Prospects will rise and fall. So will draft needs.
About the only constant in a sea of variables will be the Ravens’ preference to say nothing. When DeCosta was asked during the draft whether it was advantageous to allocate more capital toward 2022, he said he understood the question. Then, as expected, he gave a nonanswer.
“We get great information,” he said. “We’ve also got an advanced analytics staff that helps us, and an unbelievable coaching staff that really does a phenomenal job evaluating, so that’s our advantage. The fact that we care so much, and we have a culture, continuity with John [Harbaugh] as our head coach. We understand what we’re looking for in terms of players, and that’s our advantage. And so, whether it’s this year or next year, I always feel that if we’re competing against the other 31 teams, we’ll do as well as anybody.”