Select an immediate standout early, an eventual starter or two later, then round out the class with a few rookie free-agent gems. For much of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's tenure, that's been his blueprint on draft day.
"Once you start out [by drafting] two Hall of Famers in Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, it's kind of hard not to go downhill from there," joked former Ravens head coach Brian Billick, now an NFL Network analyst. "But downhill is still pretty darn good."
The NFL draft is an inexact science. It takes conviction and good fortune, preparation and patience. Few teams have done it better than the Ravens, though their most recent drafts have been more sound than spectacular.
As the 2014 draft nears, starting with Thursday's first round, neither Billick nor any other analyst is suggesting that Newsome and his front office have suddenly lost their touch. The Ravens continue to be hailed as one of the league's gold standards for their ability to spot, acquire and develop talent.
This year, with eight picks, including the 17th overall, and an extensive list of needs, the Ravens know that they cannot afford to miss. They need more immediate help than they got from last year's draft class.
"They are coming off an 8-8 season where it was demonstrated that even though Joe Flacco is a $120 million quarterback, he needs help around him," said former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, a key member of the Ravens' front office from 1996 to 2004. "He needs a solid line, he needs a run game, he needs Dennis Pitta to stay healthy, he needs to get better play from his receivers. There's always pressure every year in the draft. Once that standard has been set, you try to build off the tradition that is in place."
From 1996 to 2007, a stretch in which a nascent franchise morphed into a perennial winner, Newsome made 14 first-round selections; 10 of them made at least one Pro Bowl. In 2008, Newsome added Flacco, a future Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and running back Ray Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
Rice, however, was the last player the Ravens drafted to make a Pro Bowl. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets have gone through a longer drought.
"We want guys that come in [and] contribute, they are good citizens, they play right away," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "We don't care about Pro Bowls. We care about Super Bowls."
Adding to winning nucleus
Since 2008, the Ravens have won 71 games, more than any other team besides the New England Patriots (76). They've done it by annually bolstering a veteran nucleus with a few free-agent additions and an influx of rookie talent.
Sixteen of their projected starters for 2014 are homegrown players. There were 38 homegrown players on the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII roster. But in recent offseasons, they have watched draft successes such as Arthur Jones and Paul Kruger move on in free agency. Other picks haven't measured up.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb, a third-round pick, is the only Raven left from the 2009 draft. Pitta and nose tackle Terrence Cody are the last men standing from 2010. In the 2011 and 2012 drafts, of Ravens' 10 selections made in the fourth round or later, only six remain in the organization.
Such turnover is more of the norm than the exception. The Cleveland Browns have only one player remaining from each of the 2009 and 2010 drafts. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't have any players left from their 2008 and 2009 drafts.
"It's hit or miss," said ESPN analyst Mark Dominik, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to 2013. "If you draft 12 players in 2009 and 50 percent of them are still in the league five years later, that's actually a pretty good draft, whether they are on your team or not."
Russ Lande, a former NFL scout who now works as the director of college scouting for National Football Post, remembers former St. Louis Rams general manager Charley Armey telling him that no matter how much homework he did on prospects, he'd still miss on draft picks at least 30 percent of the time.
"You can't predict how a player is going to adapt to the NFL," Lande said. "It's a difficult thing to figure out — the mental side, the intangibles, and that's usually the difference between players that make it and players that don't."
Lande considers the Ravens one of the top three organizations in drafting players.
Searching for starters, not stars
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, said the organization had a simple formula in determining whether the draft was a success.
"If, three years down the line, three of the players we picked in that draft were solid starters we weren't looking to replace, we viewed that as a successful draft," Jeremiah said. "You figure, on average, you've got seven picks. That's not even batting .500 in terms of starters, but that's pretty good. If you can go year after year and do that, you can sustain excellence as a football team."
By that criteria, the Ravens have had their share of hits and misses since the 2008 draft brought them Flacco and Rice, paving the way for five straight postseason appearances under coach John Harbaugh. Of the last 39 players they've drafted, 11 have made at least 15 career starts, and several others have emerged as contributors on winning teams. None of the past 47 players they've taken have made the Pro Bowl.
But Gil Brandt, former longtime vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, said it would be "unrealistic" to expect the Ravens to regularly find Pro Bowlers when they've had no better than the 25th overall pick for the past five seasons. Billick agreed, pointing out the Ravens have mostly cashed in on early- to mid-round picks, grabbing Terrell Suggs (No. 10 overall), Haloti Ngata (12) and Flacco (18).
"I don't know that a Pro Bowl designation is the final indication of a player's ability," Billick said. "I realize that it's a nice honor, but what matters is, are they a functional starter on your team for a length of time? There's not too many first-round picks that the Ravens have had where that's not the case."
Some good, some bad
Michael Oher, Kruger and Webb all arrived via the 2009 draft, and Ed Dickson, Pitta and Jones were part of the 2010 class that also featured second-round busts Sergio Kindle and Cody. The 2011 selections of Jimmy Smith (first round) and Torrey Smith (second round) have paid dividends, but nobody else from that year developed into a starter.
The 2012 draft was also a mixed bag. Courtney Upshaw, Kelechi Osemele and Bernard Pierce played key roles on a Super Bowl-winning team, but Christian Thompson, Asa Jackson and Tommy Streeter have given the Ravens nothing. It's too early to judge last year's draft, though first-round pick Matt Elam was the only one of the 10 selections to play a prominent role as a rookie.
The Ravens' most impactful rookies the past two years have probably been kicker Justin Tucker and wide receiver Marlon Brown, both undrafted free agents.
"When you pick higher in the draft, you have a greater chance of hitting a home run. When you're picking lower, you're going to hit a lot of singles and doubles," DeCosta said. "Courtney Upshaw is a great example because he's been a really good player for us, but not a flashy guy. Really, a blood-and-guts, hard-nosed, tough, competitive guy. I look at Ben Grubbs as one of our great picks, but he's an offensive guard."
Lewis (26), Ed Reed (24), tight end Todd Heap (31) and Grubbs (29) were all picked late in the first round, but Savage said it's getting harder and harder to find Pro Bowl-caliber players that late.
"When you're in the 20s, there aren't as many gifts that fall to you because the league, as a whole, probably does a better job of scouting now," Savage said. "There's more manpower, more assets and resources poured into it."
But even he would agree that there's plenty of luck involved, too. In 1996, the Arizona Cardinals picked Illinois defensive end Simeon Rice at No. 3 overall, letting Ogden drop into the Ravens' laps. If Ogden wasn't on the board, the Ravens probably would have picked troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, who washed out of the NFL quickly.
In 2002, the Ravens had their eyes on Northwestern linebacker Napoleon Harris at No. 24. Instead, he went at No. 23 to the Raiders, prompting the Ravens to settle for Reed, who played 11 years in Baltimore and is likely bound for the Hall of Fame.
Newsome recounted the story last week of the Browns' outbidding the Ravens to move up in the 2007 draft and select Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. The Ravens stayed where they were, drafted a future Pro Bowl guard in Grubbs, then took Flacco the following year.
"There's a lot of luck with the draft," DeCosta said. "That's why we value picks as much as we do. The more picks you have, the more chances you have of getting lucky on a guy. … We try to make it a science. In the end, it's probably more art than science."
Still dominating the draft?
Under general manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have been long regarded as one of the best drafting organizations in the NFL. The Ravens haven't drafted a Pro Bowl player since taking Ray Rice in the second round in 2008 but they have mostly been successful in drafting quality starters. Here's how they've done compared to their AFC North competitors from 2009 on.
|Team||Players drafted||Pro Bowls||Total starts||Players still with team||Projected starters in 2014|
Note: Browns' breakdown includes wide receiver Josh Gordon, a supplemental, second-round pick in 2012.