Nearly 10 weeks from the NFL draft’s opening night, the Ravens might not know much beyond whom they can’t (or won’t) take. General manager Eric DeCosta doesn’t know who’ll rise and fall at the scouting combine, how free agency will work out or even where all of the team’s projected nine picks will fall.
If last year is a guide, the Ravens should learn their two compensatory-pick slots next Friday. (Because of the loss of free-agent inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver John Brown, they’re expected to receive a pair of fourth-round selections.) After that, the dominoes will start to fall: The combine starts Feb. 23. The window to designate franchise and transition tags runs from Feb. 25 to March 10. On March 18, free agency begins. On April 23, so does the draft.
The Ravens’ big board will change countless times from now until then, but it doesn’t take Mel Kiper Jr. to imagine where DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh will look for help. If the Ravens keep all their draft picks and retain Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, here’s whom they could pick.
First round (No. 28): LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen
The Ravens signed L.J. Fort to a contract extension last season, but he’s not the long-term answer at linebacker, and neither is the 30-year-old Josh Bynes, a pending free agent. The draft offers the Ravens their best hope of finding the franchise’s next great inside linebacker.
The 6-foot-1, 227-pound Queen wasn’t a full-time starter until last year (85 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three sacks), his junior season with the defending national champion Tigers, but he routinely flashed his ability in the postseason. A sideline-to-sideline presence with a high football IQ and impressive coverage skills, Queen projects as an every-down linebacker. His play in run defense needs some fine-tuning, though.
Second round (No. 60): Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike
With Michael Pierce a pending free agent, and the Ravens unlikely to emerge as his top suitor, the defense needs another impact tackle. Backups Domata Peko Sr. and Justin Ellis are also pending free agents, and Daylon Mack played just once as a rookie before being placed on injured reserve in November.
While Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore would be an enticing second-round prospect, Madubuike is more likely to last this long. A former teammate of Mack’s, he led the Aggies last season with 11½ tackles for loss and 5½ sacks as a redshirt junior. The 6-3, 300-pound Madubuike doesn’t have the two-gapping skills that the bigger Pierce does, but he’s a more versatile pass rusher, an important asset in coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s system.
Third round (No. 92): Florida wide receiver Van Jefferson
Willie Snead IV has been a solid and durable option in the slot for the Ravens, but when he becomes a free agent after next season, he’ll be approaching his age-29 season. If first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown projects as an outside receiver in the Ravens offense, it would help to start to look for more help elsewhere.
Jefferson, the son of former NFL wide receiver and assistant coach Shawn Jefferson, isn’t exactly young for a draft pick. (He turns 24 in July.) But he’s a savvy route runner who knows how to set defenders up and make tough catches. The 6-2, 197-pound Jefferson led the Gators with 657 yards on 49 catches last season, including a team-best 69-yard completion, and he impressed during Senior Bowl practices.
Fourth round (via New England Patriots): Michigan State edge rusher Kenny Willekes
Even if the Ravens re-sign Judon, and especially if he returns on a one-year deal, they’ll need new blood at the position. Tyus Bowser is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and Jaylon Ferguson is the only other full-time edge rusher on the roster. A free-agent addition likely isn’t signing with the Ravens for more than a few years.
Willekes, a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end who started for three years at Michigan State, would have to learn to play in space in the Ravens’ 3-4 system. But he could be an immediate-impact situational pass rusher. A former walk-on, the 6-4, 260-pound Willekes finished his Spartans career as the program’s all-time leader in tackles for loss (51) and No. 3 in sacks (26).
Fourth round: Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson
The Ravens have built an elite defense from the back, with All-Pro cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters likely to continue their partnership through at least 2021. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall are entering just the third and second year, respectively, of their four-year rookie contracts. Jimmy Smith could return next season, as could Brandon Carr, though both are unlikely.
Slot cornerback Tavon Young, meanwhile, is signed through 2022. But his injury history is worrisome, and the Ravens secondary is better off with Humphrey playing outside. Robertson, an All-American as a third-year junior, has the makings of an impact nickelback. Despite a small frame (5-9, 183 pounds), he allowed a 53.6 passer rating in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, and finished his Bulldogs career with 14 interceptions.
Fourth round (compensatory): North Carolina defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge
At 6-4, 267 pounds, Strowbridge doesn’t have the size (yet) to be a reliable run stopper inside. But with his 80-plus-inch wing span and good toughness, Strowbridge can still be disruptive lining up over a tackle or a guard. He posted 13 tackles for loss and 8½ sacks over his final two seasons at North Carolina.
Strowbridge could be a developmental defensive end like Zach Sieler, the former Raven who emerged late last season after landing with the Miami Dolphins. Starter Chris Wormley is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the versatile Jihad Ward is a pending free agent.
Fourth round (compensatory): Oregon offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton
The Ravens had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines last season, and there’s maybe no other unit more important to quarterback’s Lamar Jackson development. But the near future is uncertain, with guard Marshal Yanda mulling retirement, center Matt Skura recovering from a serious knee injury, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley set to earn a top-level contract by 2021.
Throckmorton struggled against the Senior Bowl’s top edge rushers, but he could be a James Hurst-esque swing lineman at the next level. As a junior in 2018, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top Pac-12 offensive lineman and was the only Football Bowl Subdivision lineman to start at four positions (left tackle, center, right guard and right tackle).
Fifth round: Miami edge rusher Trevon Hill
Hill’s stock could be among the most volatile in the draft. After a strong start to his final season at Virginia Tech, including 31½ sacks in three games, Hill was dismissed in late September 2018. He later said he’d had a “heated exchange” with a member of coach Justin Fuente’s staff during halftime of an upset loss to Old Dominion.
The 6-3, 233-pound Hill transferred to Miami, where he started just once last season, finishing with 9½ tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and five quarterback hurries in 12 games. He’s gifted enough athletically to dip past blockers, but there are questions about his fit at the next level.
Seventh round (via New York Jets): Maryland safety Antoine Brooks Jr.
With kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox back again in 2020, the Ravens won’t lack for special teams standouts. But the team’s holes elsewhere on special teams, especially in punt coverage, were noticeable last season. Just as significant, stalwarts Anthony Levine Sr. and Brynden Trawick are pending free agents.
The 5-11, 213-pound Brooks, a three-year starter and two-time All-Big Ten selection for the Terps, could be a versatile special teams player. He struggled at times in coverage, but with his tackling skills, high motor and football IQ, Brooks has the skill set to contribute in a variety of roles.