The NFL draft is nearly here, and roster help isn’t far behind. The Ravens have been waiting for a while — way before injuries did a number on their roster and playoff chances last fall.
“This is a draft that we’ve been thinking about for the last year, basically,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the team’s predraft news conference earlier this month.
Thanks to a series of trades and free-agency decisions dating to last offseason, the Ravens will enter the draft with 10 picks, including four in the top 100. A smash-hit class could help return them to the top of the AFC. A dud could deny them a playoff breakthrough yet again. Before the first round starts Thursday, here’s what Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon make of the Ravens’ draft approach and this weekend’s stakes.
Let’s call it: Do the Ravens trade up, trade back or hold at No. 14?
Childs Walker: Hold. A strong case could be made for trading back, given the depth of this class and the relative lack of projected stars at the top. But as DeCosta frequently points out, a trade partner has to come calling with significant assets, and it’s not clear that any player expected to be available at No. 14 would demand such an offer. Perhaps that could change if there’s a run on wide receivers ahead of the Ravens’ spot.
It’s more likely that a few teams will make surprise choices and the Ravens will have the luxury of picking a player ranked in their top 10 without budging. Between the edge rushers, offensive tackles and cornerbacks, there are probably nine or 10 players they would be delighted to draft in their slot. Most of those prospects won’t fall, but only one of them has to. The Ravens have not picked in the top 15 often. When they have, they have generally come away with Pro Bowl-level talent. You can bet DeCosta wants to hit on another such opportunity.
Jonas Shaffer: Hold. If DeCosta’s phone doesn’t ring, he should have at least one elite player available at No. 14. But he’d probably be happier to swap first-round picks and acquire a nice Day 2 prize, whether it’s for this year or next. His trouble will be finding a willing suitor. Draft analysts have said that the best first-round value in this year’s draft is late in the first round — exactly the neighborhood that a likely trade partner would have to leave to move up to No. 14.
The Ravens’ hopes could rest on the draft’s wide receiver and quarterback markets. With the Philadelphia Eagles reportedly eyeing Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams at No. 15 overall, would a desperate team be willing to jump the line? Would the Detroit Lions (Nos. 2 and 32 overall picks) or even the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20 overall pick) call the Ravens if they thought their top quarterback target might fall to the New Orleans Saints at No. 16? In an unpredictable draft, don’t rule anything out.
C.J. Doon: Trade back. The Ravens don’t need more picks in this draft, but they could acquire more selections in 2023 and beyond. That could be particularly enticing with next year’s class shaping up to be much more talented at the top.
The problem is, the phone might not ring. Quarterbacks usually drive first-round maneuvering, and this year’s crop isn’t in high demand. But there are a few highly touted players who could fall, such as Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross and Alabama’s Williams. If the Ravens have their sights set on a few players who could still be available later in the first round, this might be a good chance to pick up some future assets.
The Ravens prefer to acquire picks in the draft, but is there a first-round prospect they should move up to grab?
Walker: The two that leap to mind are Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner. It’s hard to imagine Gardner slipping given his combination of size, athletic ability and college performance, but if he somehow gets to No. 10, DeCosta might make a call. Remember, the Ravens tried to trade up for Jalen Ramsey in the 2016 draft, so we know this is the type of player that would create such urgency for them. DeCosta might face a similar decision if LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. falls close to the Ravens’ slot.
Thibodeaux is the most fascinating player in the first round; no one questions his talent, but he has faced bizarre backlash for being a well-rounded human. The Ravens have shown interest in him, reportedly taking him out to dinner after his pro day at Oregon. There’s no guarantee that one of the top four edge rushers will make it to No. 14, so if Thibodeaux slips to within five spots of their slot, he would be worth a leap. There’s no position where the Ravens need a more immediate injection of star power.
Shaffer: Thibodeaux, but only if he’s still on the board at, like, No. 12 overall. The draft isn’t a science; I’m not sure that Thibodeaux is that much more of a sure thing than the prospect who could be available two picks later. Parting with a second-round pick or a couple of third-rounders to jump into the top eight might secure the Ravens a potentially generational edge rusher, yes. It might also saddle them with a distraction and cost them another Day 1 starter.
Thibodeaux, with his athletic pedigree, is more likely to succeed than not. And concerns about his character should matter less in Baltimore, where the Ravens have built a strong culture with a blend of personalities. But considering the front office’s short- and long-term needs — building a Super Bowl-worthy roster and keeping costs low to help with a Lamar Jackson extension — team officials would have to stomach a headline-making gamble. How convinced would they be that the player they trade up for is worth more than the players they’re theoretically giving up?
Doon: The top of this class is defined by its edge rushers, tackles and cornerbacks, all positions the Ravens would be happy to upgrade and/or bolster for the future. Should a prospect like Cross, considered the best pure pass protector in this class, or North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu, a dominant run blocker, fall outside the top 10, the Ravens have the ammunition to move up and grab a plug-and-play lineman. Even defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a popular Ravens pick in mock drafts, might be worth climbing a few spots to secure.
How should the Ravens balance their needs with their best-player-available approach over the first three rounds?
Walker: They need to draft a cornerback and an edge rusher on the first two days, because the odds of coming away with an immediate contributor at either position would drop precipitously on Day 3. Ideally, they would also draft an offensive tackle and an interior defensive lineman, but they will still find appealing developmental prospects at those positions in the fourth round. They can afford to wait for a running back, a tight end and perhaps a lineman to compete for snaps at center.
Shaffer: Entering the third round without an edge rusher would be a mistake. The best players at the position tend to be the athletic freaks who warrant early-round consideration. Of Pro Football Focus’ 10 highest-rated edge rushers from this past season, nine were top-34 picks. The one exception? Fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby, a supremely athletic prospect himself coming out of Eastern Michigan.
Over the first two days of the draft, the Ravens should address at least two of their four pressing needs — edge rusher, cornerback, offensive tackle and defensive line. After edge rusher, cornerback makes the most sense for a high-value pick, given the Ravens’ scary-thin depth there and the premium franchises place on pass defense. But if a big-bodied wide receiver or three-down inside linebacker or field-stretching tight end falls to the Ravens at an opportune spot, history says they won’t hesitate to seize the opportunity.
Doon: As much fun as it might be to consider what the Ravens offense would look like with another first-round receiver added to the mix, cornerback, edge rusher and offensive line are areas of need at premium positions that fly off the board early. While PFF ranks edge rusher as the strongest position group in the class, it would be foolish to wait past pick No. 45 to take one.
What does a successful Ravens draft look like?
Walker: They pick an edge rusher who can start right away in the first round and use their next three picks on a versatile cornerback, a defensive lineman with pass-rushing potential, and a prospect with room to grow at offensive tackle. Then, they use their deluge of fourth-round picks to add depth at inside linebacker, running back, tight end, cornerback and defensive line. The overarching theme is that they need to come away with three or four players who help them on defense no later than 2023.
Shaffer: NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, said last week that any draft that yields three starters within a three-year span has to be considered a really good draft. That seems like a fair baseline for the Ravens, who have four top-100 picks and another five fourth-round picks in a draft that pundits believe will reward smart Day 3 investments. DeCosta has to find a Year 1 starter at either edge rusher or cornerback, and a Year 2 starter at the other spot. If he can bring in a rotational offensive or defensive tackle and a potential starter at another spot, the Ravens should be happy.
Doon: The Ravens need at least two starters from their four top-100 picks. There is valuable depth to be had with their five fourth-round selections, but whom they land early will ultimately determine the strength of this class.
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Given how much the AFC improved this offseason and the ongoing negotiations with Jackson on a long-term contract, there’s pressure on this rookie class to make an immediate impact. That means nailing those early selections.
Whom in the organization is this draft most important for?
Walker: Mike Macdonald succeeded in his one season away from Baltimore, and now he’s back as the orchestrator of a historically revered defense. He’s also staring at a half-full cupboard with a serious need for restocking on the edges and in the middle. Macdonald did a terrific job unlocking the potential of pass rushers and versatile defensive backs at Michigan. He’ll hope this draft yields a similar collection of young defenders. He needs them if he hopes to restore the Ravens defense to glory in his first season as coordinator.
Shaffer: DeCosta, if only to quiet the growing narrative around his draft results — a narrative that conveniently ignores his hands-on contributions to the Ravens’ more successful classes. DeCosta’s first haul, in 2019, has produced just one projected starter, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and even that first-round pick came with a significant opportunity cost in a receiver-rich draft.
From 2020, the Ravens have three projected starters (inside linebacker Patrick Queen, running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive lineman Justin Madubuike) and a special teams standout (wide receiver Devin Duvernay), though injuries and inconsistency have denied the group a true breakout star.
The 2021 class is low on contributors, but it’s already produced three projected starters (wide receiver Rashod Bateman, outside linebacker Odafe Oweh and defensive back Brandon Stephens) and a possible fourth (guard Ben Cleveland). If a Pro Bowl-level player emerges from the previous three classes, and if the Ravens can find an above-average rookie starter this week, DeCosta’s record would start to look a lot better.
Doon: Is it strange to say Jackson? He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and still hasn’t quite proven himself in the postseason. If the Ravens can add the necessary pieces to elevate a roster that’s already considered a Super Bowl contender, a deep playoff run would eliminate any doubts about making him one of the highest-paid players in football.
In fact, Jackson and Co. might need an influx of young talent just to keep pace in the AFC. Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Terron Armstead, Chandler Jones and Randy Gregory all moved into the conference this year, while Deshaun Watson entered the AFC North. For Jackson and the Ravens to achieve their ultimate goal of bringing a championship to Baltimore, an impact draft class is a must.