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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 2021 draft

The Ravens found a polished fit at wide receiver in Rashod Bateman and looked away from right tackle to pick a high-risk, high-upside edge rusher in Odafe Oweh. Here’s what we learned from their 2021 draft:

In Rashod Bateman, the Ravens took the wide receiver who best fit their needs.

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We can’t call it a smoke screen exactly, but general manager Eric DeCosta did spend much of the Ravens’ predraft news conference throwing out signals that he felt no pressure to draft a wide receiver at No. 27 overall.

He expressed his disgust at harsh appraisals of the team’s current receivers and suggested the Ravens could just as easily find pass-catching help in the middle rounds as at the top of the draft. Actions speak louder than words, however, and when it came time for DeCosta to make his first pick, he looked past appealing options at tackle and edge rusher to take Bateman.

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Was this truly a case of the Ravens taking the best player available? Or was it more a case of them using position to break a tie between similarly graded prospects? We’ll never know for sure, but it doesn’t matter, because they picked a player who will help quarterback Lamar Jackson immediately.

Bateman is a versatile receiver who showed he could produce out of the slot during his brief 2020 run at Minnesota. He was even better playing as more of an outside target in 2019. No matter where he lined up, he got open, using carefully developed footwork to beat press coverage. Matt Simon, his wide receivers coach at Minnesota, raved about his gift for converting film study to improvements on the field.

“I think the thing that hits my brain is right place, right time when I think about Rashod Bateman here with the Ravens, because I think he brings a style that’s really going to complement the guys that are here right now,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I think to categorize him as an X, or a Z, or an inside receiver, or an outside receiver is a bit shortsighted. He’s going to be able to play inside and out for us. I think his productivity since he got to college has been, and really, in high school as well … He’s been productive every single year he’s played.”

Bateman is the anti-Breshad Perriman — not the fastest guy in the class but a true student of his position. He emulates Keenan Allen, a third-round pick who’s made four straight Pro Bowls for the Los Angeles Chargers without challenging Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones for highlight-reel supremacy.

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Though many draft analysts loved the pick, some offered lukewarm assessments because they view Bateman as a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect. Time will tell if that’s the case, but even an unspectacular receiver who gives the Ravens five years of reliable production would be a welcome addition.

Penn State edge rusher Odafe Oweh plays defense against Ohio State during a game in State College, Pa., on Oct. 31, 2020.
Penn State edge rusher Odafe Oweh plays defense against Ohio State during a game in State College, Pa., on Oct. 31, 2020. (Barry Reeger/AP)

The Ravens were never counting on a draft pick to fill Orlando Brown Jr.’s shoes.

When the Ravens traded their Pro Bowl tackle less than a week before the draft, many of us assumed the position would vault to the top of their needs list. They had their chances to draft a projected Week 1 starter at right tackle in Oklahoma State powerhouse Teven Jenkins. If they preferred another tackle such as Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, he was also available at pick No. 31.

Instead, the Ravens drafted an edge defender with vast potential and a relatively slim college resume in Odafe Oweh. What can we deduce from this? First, they probably did not view Jenkins as a clear first-round talent. Second, they were never going to abandon their best-player-available mantra to zero in on a right tackle. The story might have been different if Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw had fallen to No. 27, but lucky as the Ravens were with the way the first round broke, they weren’t that lucky.

We have to assume the Ravens feel confident they will sign a veteran right tackle — Alejandro Villanueva and Dennis Kelly are the known candidates — to tide them over in 2021. Tyre Phillips could be in the mix but did not look ready to start at tackle based on his dreadful pass blocking in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills.

It’s not as if DeCosta ignored their offensive line needs in the draft. They picked man-mountain Ben Cleveland late in the third round. Coach John Harbaugh, who loves a beefy front, was so enthusiastic about Cleveland that he apparently urged DeCosta to trade up for the Georgia lineman. Harbaugh said the 6-foot-6, 357-pound rookie will compete for the starting job at left guard, with 6-foot-5, 325-pound Bradley Bozeman likely shifting to center. If Ronnie Stanley is healthy at left tackle and one of the veteran free agents fills Brown’s old spot, the Ravens would field a more reliable, imposing line than they did at the end of last season.

They’ll still need to find a long-term bookend to pair with Stanley, but they decided the problem was not pressing enough to alter their draft strategy. They took the riskier path; if Jenkins starts for 10 years and Oweh cannot translate his remarkable physical gifts to NFL production, we’ll look back and say the Ravens did not get enough from the Brown trade.

Perhaps we need to update the old saw that the Ravens draft productivity over athletic traits.

DeCosta took one of those big swings he likes to talk about with the Oweh pick. He could have taken Jenkins, safety Trevon Moehrig or one of several edge defenders with better track records as college pass rushers. Instead, he took a 6-foot-5, 251-pound athletic marvel who’s only played football for five years.

There’s a lot to like about the pairing of Oweh and Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. Even if Oweh is not a natural pass rusher, Martindale will put his 4.39 speed and natural aggression to good use.

“I can’t wait for this city to see how special he’s going to be,” Martindale said Friday. “It’s a thing where, some people talk about sacks, because that’s fantasy football, and that’s what everyone wants to talk about. But this guy brings so much more to the table than that.”

The coaches who worked with Oweh at Penn State offered similar assessments. They saw him transform from a part-time player to a starter who manhandled tackles and tight ends as a run defender. They felt his lack of sack production was overblown given how many one-on-one battles he won as an admittedly raw pass rusher. Oweh seems realistic about the improvements he must make and thrilled at the potential he might unlock. Given the Ravens’ lack of young talent at outside linebacker, he was worth the risk.

The Ravens took another risk on an intriguing athlete with their second third-round pick, SMU cornerback Brandon Stephens. Of their four selections over the first two days, this one seemed to puzzle fans the most. Why go for a player who started his college career at running back over a productive safety such as Indiana’s Jamar Johnson?

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Stephens was one of the biggest cornerbacks in the draft and tested well above average in almost every athletic trait. He plays the ornery press coverage the Ravens love and could slide to safety if that’s where they need him. DeCosta praised his “upside potential.”

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That phrase really sums up the Ravens’ top two defensive picks. They’re no longer the reliable conservatives in this process.

Oklahoma State wide receiver Tylan Wallace carries the ball during a game against Texas Tech in Stillwater, Okla., on Nov. 28, 2020.
Oklahoma State wide receiver Tylan Wallace carries the ball during a game against Texas Tech in Stillwater, Okla., on Nov. 28, 2020. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The Ravens picked up some excellent values on Day 3 as they went for the best player available.

Many Ravens draft watchers assumed they’d go right back to the offensive line on Saturday with an eye on developmental prospects. Instead, they plucked productive players without regard for position, indicating they were never thrilled with the Day 3 talent at tackle.

They set up a legitimately interesting competition in their wide receiver room when they drafted Tylan Wallace, one of the best values of the fourth round.

Wallace won’t blow anyone away with his size or speed and faced health questions after he missed games because of knee injuries in both 2019 and 2020. He consistently produced big plays at Oklahoma State, however, popping off the line of scrimmage and fighting for contested balls. He’s another receiver who could help the Ravens either outside (where he did most of his damage in college) or from the slot.

Next, they went with yet another big cornerback who could play safety in Ohio State’s Shaun Wade. He struggled with outside coverage in 2020 but excelled as a slot corner the year before. Call him insurance against another injury to Tavon Young.

Then they added Notre Dame edge defender Daelin Hayes, whom ESPN’s Todd McShay called “one of the steals of Day 3.” With his ability to rush on one snap and drop into coverage on the next, he could help make up for the loss of Matthew Judon.

They finished up with Michigan fullback/tight end Ben Mason, who projects as a smaller Patrick Ricard with his blocking ability and history as a defensive lineman.

Versatility became the buzzword of a productive day; none of these new Ravens is one-dimensional.

We’ll need years, not weeks or months, to evaluate the Orlando Brown Jr. trade.

There’s little chance the Ravens improved their 2021 team by trading Brown. They used the first-round pick they added on Oweh, who’s probably several years from becoming the best version of himself. They will probably turn to free agency to sign a starting right tackle who isn’t as good as the one they had.

None of this is ideal given the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations, but Brown put them in a difficult spot with his insistence on playing left tackle.

DeCosta did his best to wring future value from a present problem. Given the seeming inevitability of losing Brown after the 2021 season, he made the right kind of trade. Some fans found the deal unpalatable because it helped the Kansas City Chiefs, a major AFC rival, but that’s using short-term thinking to judge a long-term decision.

Yes, 2020 performance will be part of evaluating the trade, but we need to see what Oweh becomes. We need to see whether Brown signs a long-term deal with the Chiefs and becomes a franchise left tackle. We need to see what the Ravens get from the draft depth they added this year and next.

“Given our situation, given our choices and given the reality of the salary cap age, for us to accumulate some picks and use those picks on young players is probably the smart thing to do,” DeCosta said Thursday night. “It’s not easy to do that, but it’s probably the best thing. I think as a GM, and I’ve learned from the best in [executive vice president] Ozzie [Newsome], you have to look at the roster in the short term, but also have to look at the roster from the big picture long-term perspective.”

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