The Ravens started their preparation for the 2019 NFL draft months ago, and it won’t stop until the first round begins April 25. But this week is as important as any in the three-plus months still to go.
Senior Bowl practices began Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., and will wrap up Thursday. The game Saturday between the North and South teams will feature over a combined 100 prospects, with players representing national powers, Football Championship Subdivision schools and even Division II programs.
At this point, team officials can’t rule out scouting any position. (OK, maybe other than kicker and punter.) But with several important decisions to make in free agency and just two picks in the top 100 (Nos. 22 and 85), the Ravens figure to have eyes on some high-end talent at key positions.
Possible departures: After a productive season as a pass-rush specialist — 45 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks and an impressive 60 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus — Za’Darius Smith is set to cash in this offseason. It will likely be somewhere other than Baltimore. Terrell Suggs, meanwhile, turns 37 in October. Even if he’s a Raven in 2019, a succession plan is needed; he had just seven sacks this past season.
Possible replacement: Montez Sweat, an All-American defensive end in 2018, looked the part when he arrived at the Senior Bowl. The Mississippi State star measured in at 6 feet 6 and 252 pounds, with a wingspan of over 7 feet (84 1/2 inches). Then he put his pads on and reminded onlookers why, as NFL Network analyst and former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah said Tuesday, he has “everyone buzzing.”
After 14 tackles for loss, 11 1/2 sacks and one forced fumble last season, Sweat was projected as a late-first-round pick. With his dominant showing Tuesday, his stock is soaring, possibly into the top 10. It’s a long wait until late April, of course, and the Ravens should be monitoring his rise and fall.
Possible departures: John Brown is an unrestricted free agent after catching 42 passes for 715 yards and five touchdowns in his one up-and-down year with the Ravens. Michael Crabtree has two more years on his contract but could be cut this offseason. His two-catch, 38-yard performance in the Ravens' season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was just his second game of 35-plus yards since late October.
Possible replacement: The last kind of player the Ravens fans want to see drafted is an injury-prone wide receiver. But South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel might be worth the risk, especially if he somehow falls to the third round.
With a shorter but filled-out frame and return skills, the 5-11, 216-pound Samuel has already drawn comparisons to Carolina Panthers rookie standout DJ Moore. Like the former Maryland star, Samuel struggled with inconsistent quarterback play, but still finished among the Southeastern Conference’s leaders with 62 catches for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Unlike Moore, Samuel has a worrisome injury history: nagging hamstring problems in 2015 and 2016 and a broken leg in 2017.
Interior offensive line
Possible departures: There’s nothing imminent here, but massive change could arrive soon. Marshal Yanda, 34, was among the NFL’s best right guards in 2018 but hasn’t committed to returning for another NFL season. Guard Alex Lewis, entering the final year on his rookie contract, has battled injuries and inconsistency. Matt Skura, an exclusive-rights free agent whom the Ravens can tender a league-minimum contract, is not the prototypical center for offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s running schemes. And guard-tackle James Hurst, while signed through 2021, is coming off maybe his worst game as a starter.
Possible replacements: Wisconsin guard Beau Benzschawel struggled somewhat in his first day at Senior Bowl practices, but his size and strength (6-6, 307) and resume (two All-America seasons) should make him one of the draft’s top prospects at the position. Barring a superlative performance at the Senior Bowl or NFL scouting combine, he’s unlikely to be a first-round pick.
Mississippi State center Elgton Jenkins, however, could be. A center has been picked in the first round in three of the past six drafts, including two in the top 21 selections last year. At 6-4, 314, Jenkins has a wide base and the versatility to play anywhere in a pinch along the line. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed only one sack over 762 pass-blocking snaps at center during his junior and senior seasons.
Possible departure: There’s no guarantee that the Ravens can find a first-year free safety who can handle the presnap responsibilities as well as Eric Weddle does in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s schemes. There’s also no guarantee that Weddle, at age 34, will be back with the Ravens next season, or that he’ll be as durable as he was in 2018.
Possible replacement: The Senior Bowl will be a proving ground of sorts for Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, who could be the next Blue Hens star to find his way to Baltimore. A starter as a true freshman at cornerback, Adderley transitioned to safety as a junior and impressed with his understanding of coverages and his ball skills (four interceptions as a senior). He even returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
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At 195 pounds and nearly 6 feet, Adderly has the size and track record to suggest he’ll hold up in run support. He’s one of the fastest-rising prospects in the draft, but he’ll need a strong performance in Mobile and at the scouting combine to lock up a first-round grade.