With the NFL draft just a day away, it’s now-or-never time for mock drafts: Come Friday morning, your seven-round projections won’t matter at all.
But as a thought experiment, we can’t think of many better pastimes in self-quarantine. For a top team such as the Ravens, who have nine picks overall, including five over the first three rounds, the possibilities are limitless. How might their first-round selection affect the course of their next two days?
To answer that, Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon put on their Eric DeCosta bald caps and got to work. For the sake of differing perspectives, Shaffer used Pro Football Focus’ mock draft simulator, while Doon used The Draft Network’s. Another auto-draft simulation offered its own version. In a no-trades-allowed environment, here’s whom they took as wannabe general managers:
Round 1, No. 28 overall
Shaffer: Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa
This pick came down to two prospects, both linemen. The draft’s top two pure inside linebackers, LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, were off the board. The draft’s top four wide receivers were no longer options. But Michigan center Cesar Ruiz was. Forced to choose between investing in one of the NFL’s better offensive lines or one of the league’s most uncertain front sevens, I went with defense.
Ruiz has the makings of a longtime starter, but the Ravens got good play at center from Matt Skura last season. If he’s not healthy enough to start the season, Patrick Mekari should only be improved after a promising rookie year. (Don’t underestimate offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, one of the NFL’s top teachers.) Yes, this pick might undercut the Ravens’ running game, but no rookie’s going to come in and dominate as Marshal Yanda had at right guard.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Epenesa does not have blue-chip measurables, but defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale finds a way to make the most of players’ skills up front. For Epenesa, that might mean stepping in as a strong-side outside linebacker on early downs, where he can set the edge and put a charge into offensive tackles with his bull rush, before kicking inside on third-and-longs. Za’Darius Smith was a nightmare for opposing guards in his breakout 2018 season in Baltimore. Epenesa is a different player, but his strength and first step might translate similarly.
Doon: Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun
With both Queen and Murray off the board, the decision came down to Baun and Epenesa. While Epenesa would be a good fit in the Ravens defense, especially with his ability to kick inside on obvious passing situations, Baun’s versatility as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker and productive pass rusher (19½ tackles for loss and 12½ sacks as a senior) is more enticing.
There’s a good case to be made for taking a receiver like Baylor’s Denzel Mims at this spot, but with such a deep class at the position, there’s bound to be good help available in the second and third rounds.
The Draft Network simulation: Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray
Round 2, No. 55 overall
Shaffer: Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson
Davidson was the best player available at a position of need here, and what a player he could be. The trouble with evaluating this pick is a matter of redundancy: If the Ravens grab Epenesa in the first round and have Davidson there for the taking, would taking him amount to a double dip at edge rusher? Davidson was a stand-up defensive end for the Tigers, and an all-around good one. But at the NFL scouting combine, he showed up at 6-3, 303 pounds.
If Davidson’s dominance in limited repetitions at Senior Bowl practices was a preview of his potential as a three-technique lineman, he’ll be hard to ignore in the second round. After adding defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe this offseason, the Ravens don’t necessarily need more manpower up front — for 2020. It’s an impressive group, but also an aging one. Draft decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. A capable, durable Davidson would help keep the position’s snap counts reasonable and offer a bridge to the future.
Doon: USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
With his size (6-3, 223 pounds), strong hands, run-blocking ability and contributions on special teams, it’s hard to find a receiver who fits the Ravens better than Pittman. This class offers just about everything in terms of receiver types, but somebody who can win with physicality and toughness and make contested catches, as Pittman can, would be an excellent complement to the speedy Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and athletic Miles Boykin.
The Draft Network simulation: Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis
Round 2, No. 60 overall
Shaffer: USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
We’re not waiting for the fifth round to find a starting-level wide receiver, no matter what DeCosta thinks might be available there. This was another toss-up: Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., an after-the-catch menace and tantalizing chess piece, was also available. But the older, more refined, less injury-prone Pittman is the safer pick. The second round has been a breeding ground lately for No. 1 receivers; he has that potential.
If the Ravens want a stylistic complement to Brown, Pittman also looks the part: 6-4, 223 pounds, 32½-inch arms. His breakout 2019 season — 101 catches for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns — was a testament to not only his physical ability but also his technique and attention to detail. Pittman has some of the surest hands in the draft, and his long, space-eating strides belie his ability to sink his hips and get in and out of his breaks.
Doon: California safety Ashtyn Davis
Safety doesn’t exactly qualify as one of the Ravens’ needs, but there’s always room for another defensive back when a team plays nickel and dime packages as often as the Ravens do. Davis, a former track star, has the athletic traits and study habits to become a ballhawk at safety and could see the field as a rookie when Chuck Clark plays more of a hybrid linebacker role. He’d also provide valuable insurance behind veteran Earl Thomas III.
The Draft Network simulation: USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
Round 3, No. 92 overall
Shaffer: Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks
In the first round, this would’ve been a reach for the Ravens. In the second, this would’ve been acceptable. This late in the third, it’s so rich a steal that Steven Soderbergh’s already signed on to direct the movie adaptation. Like Murray and Ohio State’s Malik Harrison, another Day 2 pick, the 6-0, 240-pound Brooks projects as a middle or strong-side inside linebacker next to L.J. Fort, a huge position of need. Even if he doesn’t develop into a three-down player as a rookie, Brooks can be an instant-impact asset.
He doesn’t lack experience or production. Brooks was a four-year starter for the Red Raiders, the last of them a standout season in which he posted 20 tackles for loss despite a nagging shoulder injury. There are rough edges to his game, from working through blocks to dropping into zone coverage, but his football IQ and sideline-to-sideline speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash) can’t be overlooked.
Doon: Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson
He’s not the athlete that Murray and Queen are, but Wilson plays fast because of his reaction time and instincts. A former high school cornerback and safety, he can also hold his own in coverage, recording 10 interceptions at Wyoming. Praised for his nonstop motor and tackling prowess, Wilson could be an immediate contributor on defense and special teams.
The Draft Network simulation: Utah running back Zack Moss
Round 3, No. 106
Shaffer: Appalachian State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither
If Brooks is the meat-and-potatoes linebacker of this Ravens draft, Davis-Gaither is its Hawaiian pizza. His Appalachian State film has either everything you crave or nothing you need from a second-level defender. At 6-1, 215 pounds (he’s since bulked up to 224), Davis-Gaither saw more snaps last season along the defensive line, normally as an edge rusher, than he did in the box or in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. And he got five sacks, too.
Davis-Gaither is not Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, but they’re more alike than different, the only linebackers in this class who recorded 100-plus tackles, two-plus sacks and five-plus passes defensed in 2019. As with Simmons, a likely top-10 pick, the question with Davis-Gaither is, where do you line him up? He’s good in space but a liability against the kind of mammoth linemen he didn’t often see in the Sun Belt Conference. If the Ravens think he fills a need, Martindale would rather have someone with his versatility than not.
Doon: Oregon guard Shane Lemieux
As much as the draft is about finding good players, it’s also about finding good employees. Lemieux earned high marks for his character and football intelligence, becoming a team captain as a senior. While he isn’t an explosive mauler, Lemieux moves well for his size (6-4, 310 pounds) and works hard in the trenches. He won’t fill Yanda’s big shoes, but he’d be a valuable part of the rotation as a rookie.
The Draft Network simulation: Washington center Nick Harris
Round 4, No. 129 overall
Shaffer: LSU offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles
Finally, someone to ease the pain of losing an All-Pro lineman, if only slightly. DeCosta’s made clear his desire to invest in the offensive line through the draft, and coach John Harbaugh said earlier this month that shoring up the team’s interior offensive line is “probably job [No.] 1 or 2.” Charles, like the retired Yanda, played tackle most of his college career but might have the most potential inside.
At 6-4, 321 pounds, Charles doesn’t have the ideal length to handle the Myles Garretts and T.J. Watts of the AFC North. But he’s a good athlete (5.05-second 40-yard dash) with promising quickness and technique. If Charles can leave his off-field problems behind in Baton Rouge — he missed six games last season for disciplinary reasons — and show more power in run blocking, he could contend for playing time immediately.
Doon: North Carolina State defensive lineman Larrell Murchison
With Michael Pierce signing with the Minnesota Vikings, Chris Wormley traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Brandon Williams now 31, the Ravens need some reinforcements in the middle. Murchison, a penetrating three-technique lineman, has the potential to be an effective pass rusher from the inside because of his quickness and relentless hustle. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein notes that Murchison is “always around the ball and rarely on the ground.”
The Draft Network simulation: Temple cornerback Harrison Hand
Round 4, No. 134 overall
Shaffer: Boise State wide receiver John Hightower
It’s time to get back to work on building that track team around quarterback Lamar Jackson — and the 6-1, 189-pound Hightower just so happens to be a former track star. The Prince George’s County native ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash and posted a 38½-inch vertical jump at the combine, both top-10 marks among wide receivers in this class.
A strong offensive line should give Jackson and his speedsters the time they need to let downfield routes develop. Even if Hightower’s play strength limits his playing time as a wide receiver early in his career, he can contribute elsewhere. In addition to a team-high 953 receiving yards last season, Hightower averaged nearly 10 yards a carry — just imagine him on a jet sweep — and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
Doon: Oregon State wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins
With subpar speed (4.61-second 40-yard dash) and strength (nine repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press), there are major concerns about Hodgins’ ability to separate from man coverage at the NFL level. But when the ball is in the air, he becomes an elite receiver with top-notch body control and ball-tracking skills. He scored 13 touchdowns as a senior for a reason. At 6-4, Hodgins can be a big-slot target and develop into Jackson’s favorite target.
The Draft Network simulation: Michigan State edge rusher Kenny Willekes
Round 5, No. 157 overall
Shaffer: Mississippi State offensive lineman Tyre Phillips
In Pro Bowl players Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens have maybe the NFL’s best pairing of offensive tackles. The depth behind them, though, should make the hair on Harbaugh’s back stand up. There’s 33-year-old Andre Smith and … um … maybe Will Holden?
If Charles’ future is at guard, Phillips can be the swing tackle the Ravens lost when they cut James Hurst this offseason. If Phillips’ range in pass protection is too limited, he can be unleashed inside. At 6-5, 331 pounds, with 35-plus-inch arms, he has an imposing frame with brute-force power. There might not be an NFL offense whose philosophy is more aligned with Phillips’ strengths than the Ravens’.
Doon: Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant
With Hayden Hurst shipped off to the Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens could use another pass-catching tight end. Bryant, who led all tight ends with 65 receptions for 1,004 yards as a senior, is a fluid athlete and tough blocker. He’s also been praised for his ability to improvise and find space when the play breaks down, which would make him a natural fit as a receiver for Jackson.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
The Draft Network simulation: Arkansas tight end Cheyenne O’Grady
Round 7, No. 225 overall
Shaffer: Arkansas safety Kamren Curl
At the end of a long, productive draft, it’s only appropriate that the Ravens take a player who bided his time before he found his best fit. Curl was a three-year starter for the Razorbacks, first as an outside corner, where he struggled, then primarily as a deep safety, where he also struggled. Only last year, when Curl moved to the box and the slot, did he look like a potential pro.
The 6-1, 206-pound Curl doesn’t have to be the next Clark to help the Ravens’ depth at safety. Thomas’ fearless style lends itself to hold-your-breath-and-pray moments. DeShon Elliott’s future becomes a little more murky with every significant injury. Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards are dependable special teams players but only part-time contributors on defense. The Ravens need a fresh face here.
Doon: Maryland running back Javon Leake
The Ravens need a kick returner, and Leake was one of the nation’s best last season, earning Big Ten Conference Return Specialist of the Year after finishing third in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 804 kickoff return yards and two touchdowns. He’s a big play waiting to happen on offense, too, averaging one rushing touchdown every 8.5 career carries. His best chance to stick on an NFL roster is on special teams, but the former Terp is explosive enough to earn some snaps at running back.
The Draft Network simulation: West Virginia offensive tackle Colton McKivitz