As he prepares to lead his 22nd draft with the Ravens, general manager Ozzie Newsome is leaning on a philosophy that he learned while playing at Alabama under Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"Historically, for me, and it started back when I played for Coach Bryant, you always feel like you could get better," Newsome said Wednesday at the team's annual pre-draft luncheon. "Whether we were so-called drafting real good, then to me, I've got to get better. 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. You always have to get better."
The Ravens' past draft successes under Newsome are well-documented. They've had 21 homegrown players go on to make at least one Pro Bowl. Newsome's first pick, offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his second selection, linebacker Ray Lewis, will almost certainly be enshrined in Canton as part of the 2018 Hall of Fame class. His 21 overall first-round selections have made 57 Pro Bowl teams and won multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards and two Super Bowl MVPs.
The draft has long been the lifeblood of the organization and the latest version, which will begin April 27, comes at a particularly crucial time. The Ravens have missed the playoffs three of the past four years. Their roster is in a state of transition after several recent high draft picks have failed to deliver. There are no players remaining from their 2012 draft class and only two left — Brandon Williams and Ryan Jensen — from the 10-man 2013 haul.
Despite being uncharacteristically aggressive and active early in free agency, the Ravens still have needs at wide receiver and along the offensive line, at pass rusher and inside linebacker and also in the defensive backfield.
They'll have seven picks to address those needs, including the 16th overall selection, two third-round picks and four of the first 78 selections.
"It's always daunting. You feel the pressure. We want to find good players," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "Typically, it's a strange thing, but if you're picking at 30, you only really like 15 guys. If you're picking at 16, you may only like eight guys. That's just the way your mind works. We really want to get a specific level of player on the board if we can."
Predictably, the Ravens' brain trust offered no revelations during the approximately 45-minute news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center. The team guards its draft plans tightly, and three weeks before the three-day draft begins is certainly not a time when they become especially chatty or illuminating. It took less than 30 seconds Wednesday for Newsome to establish that the Ravens are "going to take the best player," a common refrain this time of year.
DeCosta acknowledged that the team currently has 175 players on its draft board, although the final order has not yet been set. The Ravens still have many of their 30 allowable prospect visits to host, taking place over the next two weeks. Two of the draft's top wideouts — Clemson's Mike Williams and Washington's John Ross — were at the facility Tuesday.
This draft's strengths match up with the Ravens' biggest perceived needs. DeCosta speculated that Williams and Ross will likely go within the range of where the Ravens pick in the first round, and Western Michigan's Corey Davis and Southern California's JuJu Smith-Schuster are also receivers that figure to come off the board somewhere between the mid-first and mid-second round. Newsome made it clear that the Ravens, who have been up front about their desire to get quarterback Joe Flacco more weapons, wouldn't hesitate to draft a receiver early, despite their relative struggles drafting and developing players at that position.
DeCosta also opined that there are roughly 10 pass rushers that will be taken in the first couple of rounds who can immediately help NFL teams. As for defensive backs, Ravens officials are the latest evaluators to say that it's one of the deepest classes in recent memory.
"When you pool together the safeties and the corners, it's extremely deep this year," said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens director of college scouting. "It's probably one of the deepest drafts I've seen in terms of the volume of players in each round. Pass rushers, it seems like every year we've got a pretty good stack of pass rushers — defensive ends, outside linebackers, guys who could come in and help us. Inside 'backers are tough to find some years … but there are guys that we can find each round."
Much of the front office's offseason work has focused on solidifying the defense, which was pretty good until the final quarter of the 2016 season. The Ravens re-signed Williams to solidify the run defense and added cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Tony Jefferson in an effort to improve the secondary.
Offensively, they lost and haven't replaced two of their most trusted receivers in Steve Smith Sr. and Kamar Aiken, along with pass-catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and currently are uncertain about the identity of their center and right tackle. That has created an outside perception that the Ravens could be offense-heavy early in the draft, but the strength of the class swings heavy to the defensive side of the ball.
In other words, everything is in play as to what the Ravens will do when they're on the clock at No. 16, or even if they'll stay and make that pick. Newsome acknowledged that he's already heard from teams interested in trading up to No. 16 if the player that team covets is available.
"We have to be prepared to pick at 16 and pick at 47, and 74 and 78. We have to be prepared for that," Newsome said. "But as we start to move forward on the day of the draft, we will have a plan. If we move back five spots, who will we have a chance to get? [What] if we go back 10 spots? The other thing that we found out last year, there may be an opportunity to move up, to go up and grab a player and give up one of our resources because we feel that we can take some of the other picks that we have and gain back what we gave up. But first and foremost, we have to be ready to pick at 16."
Head coach John Harbaugh said several Ravens officials went through a variety of draft scenarios Wednesday morning before the news conference. Those conversations will only intensify over the next three weeks.
"I'm excited about where we're going, for sure," Harbaugh said. "Like Ozzie just said, it's a process and we're in the middle of it right now. We came out of the gates quick [in free agency]. We were aggressive. For every move we've made, we probably had 40 potential moves we talked about. I think there's many more moves to be made. I do think we're on our way to being better, and I'm excited about where we're going."
NOTE: The Ravens had a meeting with veteran Nick Mangold, but the free-agent center left the team facility Wednesday without signing a deal.
According to sources, there is mutual interest, and both sides will remain in contact to see if they can work out some details and find common ground.
The Ravens are looking for a proven commodity at center after trading Jeremy Zuttah, their starter the past three seasons. Mangold, 33, made the Pro Bowl seven times in nine seasons with the New York Jets before he was released in late February.
Newsome didn't specifically mention Mangold, but he said the team is still working on signing free agents and there was a "high probability" that something gets done before the draft.