After three days, two nights and 11 Ravens draft picks, Eric DeCosta entered the auditorium inside the team’s Owings Mills facility late Saturday afternoon, sat next to coach John Harbaugh, offered his thanks and repeated every NFL general manager’s favorite springtime line.
“I think we’re a better football team today than we were last week,” he said.
That was long the expectation in Baltimore, where team officials had targeted this year’s deep draft as a vital roster-building opportunity. Almost five months after the end of a frustrating 8-9 season, the Ravens entered the first round Thursday with 10 picks. They left Saturday with 11 selections, including two in the top 25 and 10 among the first 141 overall.
The path from their top pick, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (No. 14 overall), to their last pick, Missouri running back Tyler Badie (No. 196 overall), was neither direct nor ordinary. There was an out-of-the-blue trade that sent top wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to the Arizona Cardinals for another first-round pick. There were six fourth-round selections, an NFL record for the most in one round. There was even a punter taken.
But if the Ravens are a better team than they were last week — and the glowing draft grades from analysts suggest that they’re at least more talented — they’re also far closer in composition to their record-breaking 2019 team.
The similarities are most notable along the line of scrimmage. Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum, the Ravens’ second first-round pick (No. 25 overall), is considered one of the best center prospects in years and is expected to start as a rookie. The run-heavy Ravens, who struggled to establish the line of scrimmage at times last year, should have their most talented right side of the line since 2019, led by the ultra-athletic Linderbaum, standout right guard Kevin Zeitler and powerful right tackle Morgan Moses.
There’s greater uncertainty on the left side, where Patrick Mekari could now emerge as a top contender at the vacant guard spot. But team officials remain optimistic about left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s recovery from a second straight season-ending ankle injury.
If Stanley and Ja’Wuan James struggle to remain healthy, the Ravens found a potential long-term replacement Saturday. A year after trading away Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens made their first pick of the fourth round someone even bigger.
Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele (No. 110 overall) ranks in the 96th percentile or higher among offensive linemen in height (6 foot 8), weight (384 pounds), wingspan and hand size. An Australia native and former rugby and basketball standout who didn’t play football until he was 16, Faalele allowed just one sack and two quarterback hits in 301 pass-block snaps last season as the Golden Gophers’ right tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The first thing you notice is size, but then you’re, like, struck by how well he moves for that size,” DeCosta said. “And then he’s just consistently knocking people off the ball.”
Even with more pressing needs elsewhere, the Ravens’ first double-dip of the draft came at tight end. After drafting Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar at No. 128 overall in the fourth round, they grabbed Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely 11 slots later.
The roster battle at the position could be the summer’s most intriguing. All-Pro Mark Andrews is one of the NFL’s best young players. Kolar was a three-time All-Big 12 Conference performer and has experience as an in-line and detached tight end. Likely doesn’t have “an obvious position fit,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “He’s just kind of a playmaker-type guy.” Ravens coaches are hopeful that Nick Boyle will return to strength in 2022, and Josh Oliver appeared in 14 games last season.
Together with Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard, the Ravens could have the personnel to recreate their 2019 success, when quarterback Lamar Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman stressed defenses with two- and three-tight-end formations.
“We definitely want to control the middle of the field,” Harbaugh said on ESPN after the draft. “That’s been a big part of what we’ve done since 2019. ... We want to control the ‘A’ gaps in the run game first. We want to control the middle of the field in the pass game always, attack down the middle, be strong down the middle.”
He added: “But also, then, attack sideline to sideline.”
The Ravens won’t be doing that with any rookie picks at wide receiver. The undersized but well-rounded Badie, who played briefly at Friends School and went on to lead the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards last season, was the Ravens’ only other skill position pickup in the draft. The Ravens’ replacement for Brown will have to either come from within or via free agency.
“It wasn’t for a lack of effort,” DeCosta said of not drafting wide receivers. “I wouldn’t say it was a great receiver class in general, compared to some of the years. There were very good players at the top. … Similar to corner, they just fly off the board — in some cases, maybe a round to a round and a half earlier than you’d expect. I said this last year, but we like our receivers. We do.”
On defense, the Ravens’ swings this draft were bigger. Hamilton, widely considered a top-five prospect before he posted a slow time in the 40-yard dash, will likely play significant snaps at a position with three other starting-level talents.
Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo (No. 45 overall), a first-round prospect before tearing his Achilles tendon last month, could miss part of this season while rehabilitating, but Connecticut defensive tackle Travis Jones (No. 76 overall) should give the Ravens’ interior pass rush a boost.
Alabama cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis (No. 119 overall) fits the Ravens’ mold for an outside cornerback — size, speed, success against SEC competition — but has an injury history, a red flag after the team’s injury-plagued 2021. Houston’s Damarion Williams (No. 141 overall) is a scheme-versatile defensive back who plays with an edge but could be limited to a role as a nickel cornerback.
“When you’re getting down to the fourth round, there’s a reason why those players are usually available, in some cases, especially corners,” DeCosta said. “Probably lacking something, maybe. But you want traits, and you want guys who can cover; that’s important for that position. And if you get a guy that’s willing to come up and tackle, that’s even better.”
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Even with shaky cornerback depth, the Ravens’ flexibility at safety could lead to a renewed reliance on dime personnel groupings. In 2019, when the Ravens had the NFL’s fourth-best pass defense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings, the team used six or more defensive backs on 41% of its snaps, third most in the NFL. The return of cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters should bolster the secondary, which finished last in the league in yards allowed per game last year, and DeCosta wouldn’t rule out adding more help.
“We may not be done, but we do see that now we have guys that can go out there and practice right away,” he said. “We know we’re going to get Marcus back, we know we’re going to get Marlon back, but these guys provide a nice buffer for us in the short term.”
The most immediate roster change the Ravens’ draft might produce is on special teams. In taking Penn State punter Jordan Stout with the No. 130 overall pick, the Ravens could be pushing Sam Koch out. Koch has played the most games in franchise history (256), but he’s entering the final year of his contract and has a $3.2 million salary cap hit. The Ravens, still eyeing free-agent opportunities, would save $2.1 million by releasing him.
DeCosta said no decision has been made on Koch’s future. Added Harbaugh: “Jordan will come in here and learn from him, and then we’ll just see where it goes.”
For now, it’s back to free agency — not only veterans, but undrafted rookies as well. As the Ravens try to build a better roster, every pick, every move, every dollar saved is important.
“We really do try to draft the best players,” DeCosta said. “We really do. I know sometimes people say, ‘They don’t just draft [the] best available players,’ but we really do try to do that. I know I try to really stack the board that way.
“If you think the player’s value is greater than where he is available, you take him, you buy him. That’s what we do. Sometimes, we miss out on guys. It happens all the time. Our pockets have been picked many times. It’s a horrible feeling. But every once in a while, you get really good players that fall to you, and it’s an exciting thing.”