Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz talks about the Ravens' needs aligning with the key positions of strengths in the upcoming NFL draft. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
It has become an annual occurrence for the Ravens during the early rounds of the draft. The team's brain trust will prioritize adding a cornerback and the Ravens will earmark a couple they'd consider taking with their picks in rounds one through three.
As they excruciatingly wait for their time on the clock, all of the cornerbacks the Ravens covet, and even some on their board for later rounds, get selected one by one by the teams in front of them.
Reluctant to stray from their board, the Ravens opt to fill another position. The Ravens haven't selected a cornerback on the first or second day of the draft since taking Jimmy Smith with their first-round pick in 2011. As they prepare for this year's draft, which gets under way Thursday evening, team officials sense the circumstances could be different.
"Unlike some other years where we were really trying to draft a corner and just could not get one because they go off the board so quickly, I really feel like this year that we will have the chance to draft a corner based on the fact that he might be the best player there," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said at the team's annual pre-draft luncheon. "That is what makes this year kind of unique, I think, from the cornerback position."
At a time of year where opinions tend to be all over the map, talent evaluators seem unanimous in the belief that this year's class of cornerbacks is one of the best in draft history. DeCosta estimated that as many as eight could be taken in the first two rounds and that might be a conservative estimate.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay rattled off the names of 11 cornerbacks he could see being gone by the late second or early third rounds. Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft writer for Bleacher Report, has 11 corners ranked among his top 60 players.
"Those are guys that I have graded as starters, guys who can come in and play right away," Miller said. "It's a ridiculous class."
Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore is considered a near top-15 lock and Alabama's Marlon Humphrey and LSU's Tre'Davious White are expected to go in the first round as well. Several other corners, including Florida's Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie, Washington's Kevin King and Sidney Jones and Southern California's Adoree' Jackson are expected to be taken anywhere between the late first and late second rounds. Ohio State's Gareon Conley, considered a top-15 prospect, is being investigated by Cleveland police after being accused by a woman of raping her in a Cleveland hotel earlier this month.
Jones would have almost certainly been a top-15 overall pick had he not torn his Achilles during the Washington pro day.
"You have guys that are probably top-10 picks, and then you have guys all throughout the first round where you will feel really good on the value of the player. You go into the second round, you have the same thing; you have probably five or six guys," DeCosta said. "This is a very strong year, corner-wise. I feel confident that we will have the chance to address that position in the first three rounds if we want to, depending on the other players that are there and the value of the other players at other positions."
The Ravens signed veteran Brandon Carr this offseason with the expectation that he'll start opposite Smith. That would allow Tavon Young, a fourth-round pick last year who had a strong rookie year, to play in the slot. However, they're thin in proven options behind their top three and the coaching staff has grown tired of having to piece together a makeshift secondary every season when the inevitable injuries hit and other corners struggle.
It's pretty much a given that they'll take a corner at some point in this draft. The question is when?
Since drafting Smith with the 27th overall pick in 2011, the Ravens have used just six of their past 54 picks on cornerbacks. That includes two each in the fourth (Tray Walker, Young), and fifth rounds (Chykie Brown, Asa Jackson), one in the sixth (Maurice Canady) and one in the seventh (Marc Anthony).
Not selecting corners early seems like a curious strategy given the importance of the position in a pass-happy league. However, recent trends suggest what a crapshoot drafting a cornerback has become and how difficult it is to project players from that position at the next level.
Of Pro Football Focus' top 25 graded cornerbacks in 2016, eight of them were selected in the first round and 10 of them were taken in the fifth round or later. Five of them didn't even get drafted. There wasn't a single player on their list that came from either the third or fourth rounds.
Every cornerback to make the initial Pro Bowl roster over the past three years has either been a first or second-round pick, or has been taken in the fifth round or later. Players like Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, both fifth-round picks, and Malcolm Butler and Chris Harris Jr., both undrafted, have established themselves as among the best corners in the game.
"I actually had this conversation with a scout the other day. Corners really aren't developed anymore," Miller said. "It used to be, you could kind of develop a guy, but a lot of the good corners are first- or second-round picks or guys who are like Richard Sherman or A.J. Bouye or Malcolm Butler who completely fell through the cracks and no one saw it coming.
"I think my theory for that is teams are able to identify the elite athletes, like speed, length, agility. Those guys go early, which is why I think we're seeing a lot more corners go in the first round. Then after that, it's like all the good players are gobbled up in the first 50 picks or 60 picks and then you're grabbing guys that might have a couple of deficiencies, whether it's size or speed that's keeping them from really being an elite, top-level player."
NFL Network lead draft analyst Mike Mayock said the nature of the position is what makes the evaluations so difficult.
"After quarterback, you look at corners and say they have the toughest job on the field. They're running backwards against world-class sprinters and they have to find the ball in the air," Mayock said. "I think … you have to go to the basics. That's two things: Can you find a ball in the air with your back to the quarterback? No. 2, are you willing to tackle? They're the two biggest reasons the big plays occur. Corners can't do those two things.
"There are a lot of pretty-looking guys that run fast forward in shorts and I think we make mistakes sometimes when we fall in love with the guys with hips and great change of pace, and we forget that they either can't catch the ball or they won't tackle. So I think that's where most of the mistakes are made."
Each team seems to prioritize different characteristics in cornerbacks. The Seattle Seahawks are notorious for favoring big and long corners. Other teams value speed and athleticism more. The Ravens like their cornerbacks to be physical at the line of scrimmage, but they better have eye discipline and quickly can get in and out of breaks, too.
The good news is this year's draft should have something for everyone, even for the teams that opt to hold off on filling the position until the third and fourth rounds, where quality cornerbacks have been hard to find in recent years.
"I don't think from a mentality standpoint, you go into it saying, 'Let's just not use a second rounder or a third rounder. Let's wait because we can find value because we always do at the cornerback position,'" ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "It's case by case, but this year, specifically, I think there's more depth at corner than most positions and more depth at corner than we've seen in a lot of years.
"There are a lot more guys that you're going to get in the fourth, fifth round at corner this year that you'd usually have to spend a late second-, third-round pick on in previous drafts. This third and fourth round at cornerback, to me, is where the value is."