The NFL draft asks teams to predict the future, which is difficult enough in a normal year, but this was no normal year. In the months leading up to the 2021 draft, an already fraught exercise grew endlessly more complicated, entangled in the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic.
Players opted out of the college season, then back in. They played shortened seasons or not at all. There were injuries and infections, in-season interruptions and off-field distractions. In putting together their eight-player draft class, the Ravens had to decide what in 2020 mattered, and how much. 2018 and 2019 were more normal years, but they were also a year or two further away from 2021. What was true yesterday might not be true today, to say nothing of tomorrow.
In Baltimore, general manager Eric DeCosta seemed to split the difference. The Ravens took prospects who fit the team’s hard-charging style on offense and versatile philosophy on defense. They also took prospects whose best season wasn’t their most recent one, who will have to change positions to stick at the sport’s highest level. And they ignored maybe the team’s most glaring need — right tackle — believing better options to be elsewhere.
“In general, we just tried to pick good players, guys that could do multiple things, guys that fit us personality-wise,” DeCosta said after a busy Saturday in which the Ravens picked five more players and completed one trade. “We tried to pick smart, tough and competitive guys. Quite honestly, if we had a choice between two players and they were equal talents, we would always defer to the guy that really lives like a Raven, so to speak. That was something that we used to separate a lot of guys this year.”
In every day of the draft, the Ravens found players with impressive production and intriguing potential. Their top pick, Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, was a mix of both: He had 1,219 receiving yards in 2019, then contracted COVID-19, opted out of the 2020 season, opted back in, moved to a somewhat new position and had 472 yards in five games at a lighter-than-desired playing weight.
Four picks later, at No. 31 overall, the Ravens drafted an edge rusher and athletic marvel, Odafe Oweh, whom defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale compared to defensive legends Lawrence Taylor and Richard Seymour — not because of what Oweh had done at Penn State (no sacks in 2020), but to show that statistically lacking seasons were not necessarily death sentences.
Over the next six rounds, the Ravens seemed to toggle between high-floor and high-ceiling prospects. On Friday, they took Georgia guard Ben Cleveland, whose “Big Country” nickname and mauling strength are perfectly compatible with the Ravens’ run-first ethos. Then they took Southern Methodist’s Brandon Stephens, a converted running back who played cornerback for two college seasons and might project best as an NFL safety.
With their first two picks Saturday, the Ravens selected players who, a year or two earlier, might’ve graded out as Day 1 or Day 2 prospects. Oklahoma State wide receiver Tylan Wallace, the Ravens’ lone fourth-round selection after trading their other for a 2022 Arizona Cardinals pick, finished his college career with 3,434 receiving yards and nearly 17 yards per catch. But his best season came in 2018, one year before he tore his ACL and two years before he had a minor groin injury.
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, the first of the Ravens’ three fifth-round picks, was the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year last season, an honor that belied his surprising struggles. In 2019, lining up mostly in the slot — where the Ravens will play him — Wade allowed 209 yards and a 50.1 passer rating in coverage, according to Sports Info Solutions. Last season, playing as an outside cornerback, and dealing with knee and toe injuries and personal problems, he allowed 500 yards and a 112.1 passer rating.
“Some guys went through some struggles, and you just watch how they competed,” director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. “You know they may have been dealing with something this year. While they were playing, maybe [it wasn’t] the same preparation, in terms of getting ready for the season. You just watch the competition on film, and then you go back to last year’s film, when they had a more normal season, and you look at it, and you match it up, and see where they improved or what they did better that year, and you put the two together.”
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The Ravens’ final two picks were maybe their least surprising. Notre Dame edge rusher Daelin Hayes, while not a prolific pass rusher, grew up a Ravens fan, well versed in their defensive lore, and was a team captain and finalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award. Ben Mason played for John Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, at Michigan, wore a “MAKE FULLBACKS GREAT AGAIN” hat during his introductory news conference and described his mentality this way: “I’m the baddest dude on the field at all times.”
“He does fit us, our style, who we are,” Harbaugh said of Mason. “I think it’s pretty easy for anybody that’s watched us play, and now that you’ve seen some clips on him, to understand how he’s going to fit into our offense. He’s just a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do in going forward and building what we’re building here on offense. I love his personality. I love who he is as a person. I love the way he plays.”
By the end of the fifth round, the Ravens’ draft was done. They’d taken their eighth wide receiver in the past four years. They’d drafted their second edge rusher a year after taking none, and just months after free agency forced a positional reset.
Where they hadn’t invested — at least not yet — was at right tackle. Experts considered this year’s class of offensive tackles especially deep, but the Ravens had come away with only one offensive lineman, Cleveland. The departure of two-time Pro Bowl selection Orlando Brown Jr. had not changed DeCosta’s thinking; he wouldn’t “reach,” he said, for players further down the team’s draft board.
He was confident they would find a replacement. Maybe it would be in free agency, where the Ravens have been linked to Alejandro Villanueva and Dennis Kelly. Maybe it would be tackle-turned-guard Tyre Phillips, whom Harbaugh said is “going to be a really good tackle.”
“As I learned from my mentor Ozzie Newsome,” DeCosta said, “we don’t have to play games until September.”
By then, the Ravens should know better just who fits, and where.