Ravens beat writer Jeff Zrebiec on what the team is looking to accomplish in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Owner Steve Bisciotti appeared to take some of the suspense out of the NFL draft several weeks ago when he virtually assured the Ravens would take an offensive player in the first round. But this still could be one of the team’s most intriguing drafts in recent years.
The Ravens’ most pressing need is finding a No. 1 wide receiver to put some explosion into one of the NFL’s worst offenses. But according to most draft experts, the only receiver worthy of first-round consideration is Alabama’s Calvin Ridley.
The Ravens have the No. 16 overall pick and Ridley might not be available. But would the Ravens trade up a couple of spots to get Ridley at No. 11 or No. 12? Or would they be comfortable taking an offensive tackle such as Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown Jr. in the first round and acquiring a wide receiver in the second?
It’s too early to make that call right now, especially with the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis just getting underway today. Nearly two months remain before the draft and a lot of posturing and rumors will circulate before then.
But unless there are some new developments, the assumption here is that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will scrutinize the evaluations of his scouts and pay even more attention to information provided by Alabama coach Nick Saban and former Ravens player personnel director Phil Savage on Ridley.
Both follow Ridley almost daily, with Savage as a media analyst for Alabama and the executive director of the Senior Bowl. If they give the green light on Ridley, Newsome will pursue him as hard as he did Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey, whom the Ravens discussed trading up for when he was the No. 5 pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016.
“Calvin Ridley is the only first-round guarantee at wide receiver even though there are others on the borderline,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr said. “There are some good pickups at receiver in the second and third rounds.
“If Ridley drops to them at No. 16, they’d have to take him because he is pretty good player. If he falls to 10 or 11, and that could happen, then the Ravens have some decisions to make because other teams might want to jump ahead of them.”
This all gets even more interesting because Kiper has Ridley going to the Arizona Cardinals with the No. 15 overall pick and the Ravens taking Brown one slot later. But the Carolina Panthers, who have the No. 24 pick in the first round, need a receiver as badly as the Ravens, and they might want to jump ahead of the Cardinals and Ravens.
Ridley, 6 feet 1, 190 pounds, had 63 catches for 967 yards and five touchdowns last season.
“Ridley’s stats were limited because of the quarterback play,” Kiper said. “He didn’t have a lot of opportunities to have a lot of huge games. If he had a quarterback to get him the ball, he would have had a superlative career. He blocks well, does a lot of things without the football.”
Newsome, a former great at Alabama, has been criticized for selecting a lot of Crimson Tide players, but that’s not true. He has drafted only nine since the team moved to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996 and only four since 2012, two of those last year in cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round and linebacker Tim Williams in the third.
Plus, Saban has won five national championships since becoming the Crimson Tide coach in 2007. He must be doing something right.
Newsome doesn’t care about his critics because he has always been good at drowning out noise. In addition, this is his last year at calling the shots in the draft before Eric DeCosta takes over as general manager next season.
After the previous failures in drafting a receiver, Newsome could become mayor of Baltimore if he gets this pick right.
But the Ravens aren’t the only team that has failed recently in drafting a big-time receiver. According to Kiper, 56 receivers were taken in the first two rounds during the past seven years. As rated by Kiper, only four have become legitimate No. 1 receivers: Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Julio Jones.
That adds even more intrigue to the draft.
Do the Ravens take Brown or another tackle such as Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, and then a receiver in the second round? Or do they take a tight end in the first round such as South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst?
“It’s one of the deeper drafts than in recent years,” Kiper said. “The weakest position by far is if you need a defensive end. Safety is not all that good either, just average. But the quarterback position is outstanding and the running back talent is really good with a lot of versatility.
“The offensive tackle position is iffy but the centers and guards are good, and there are a lot of good punters and kickers.”
Kiper rated South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and Hurst the top tight ends and possible first-round picks. He said it was a strong group that also included Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki.
If the Ravens took an offensive tackle, they might have a dominant offensive line with Brown and Ronnie Stanley at the tackles and Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda at the guards.
Regardless, the Ravens should come away with offensive players who can help immediately, unlike a year ago when they drafted a lot of defensive players who had little impact with the exception of Humphrey.
“Last year’s draft is a work in progress,” Kiper said. “The Ravens had some offensive players they could have taken but no one can argue with Humphrey. Tyus Bowser showed flashes and Williams has to learn he can’t be a one-trick pony. [Guard] Nico Siragusa got hurt and everyone knew [offensive tackle] Jermaine Eluemunor wasn’t going to be ready. Bowser will be the key of that draft, especially with Terrell Suggs near the end of his career.”
Kiper advocates keeping third-year players such as defensive linemen Willie Henry and Bronson Kaufusi and linebacker Kamalei Correa and fourth-year players such as defensive linemen Carl Davis and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith.
“Teams are eliminating players after a couple of years, and it’s way too early to start writing them off as a bust or boom,” Kiper said. “You have to give them time to develop. [Former defensive coordinator] Dean Pees didn’t like to play young guys. He was more of watch, practice and earn your playing time. He was more into veterans.
“Correa is interesting. He was a young kid coming out of Boise State, playing outside and coming off the edge. He played hard. Then all of a sudden the Ravens have him playing inside and that was a developmental thing. Well, put him back on the outside. The Ravens gave up on John Simon too early and he turned out to be a pretty good ballplayer.”
Regardless of the pressure to win right away, Kiper says the Ravens should stay with these young players, even though the team hasn’t been to the playoffs in four of the past five years.
“The trend now is not to wait on players, and when you looked for Pees to develop players, you didn’t see it,” said Kiper said. “Henry came on last year and Davis had his moments. Some might look like disappointments, but it’s too early to tell. The Ravens appear to be in decent shape for next year and it should get better.”