Final day could make 2016 draft class special for Ravens

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Safe and clean summarized the Ravens’ first three selections of the 2016 draft.
First-round left tackle Ronnie Stanley, second-round outside linebacker Kamalei Correa, and third-round defensive end Bronson Kaufusi looked to be picks of good value and minimal risk in terms of health and off-field conduct, but they were hardly the big splashes that make you salivate about upside. Right or wrong, general manager Ozzie Newsome preferred that route in lieu of gambling on high-risk, high-reward prospects such as edge rusher Noah Spence or inside linebacker Myles Jack in the early rounds.
Even if they prove to be quality picks in the long run, they just weren’t exciting ones. And, frankly, the Ravens would be the first ones to tell you that they better find good players when they’re choosing so early in each of the first three rounds.
But all along, the fourth round was going to be a key to this year’s draft. The Ravens had known since March that they’d be making four selections in the round and added a fifth through a trade on Friday night.
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Five choices in the fourth round would set an NFL record, but the problem was that the Ravens hadn’t done particularly well there over the previous five drafts. Since 2011, a fourth-round list consisting of Tandon Doss, Gino Gradkowski, Christian Thompson, John Simon, Kyle Juszczyk, Brent Urban, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Za’Darius Smith, Buck Allen, and the late Tray Walker had produced a solid player or two — with a few still to be determined — but it was hardly a dynamic group.
Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta set out to change that trend on Saturday.
“I think we had a great game plan, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to nail those picks,” said DeCosta, who extensively researched the historical sequencing and tendencies of teams picking in that portion of the draft. “We’ve said it lot. This was a critical part of our draft — the fourth round. It became a mission for all of us to do the best we could and get the best players we could.
“It fell that way today. We had a bunch of players and we had a sense of who might be there in different spots. The players that we targeted, they were there. We’d go back down and wait on a guy, and he’d be there. Then, we’d go back down and wait on a guy, and he’d be there. It just came out the right way for us.”
First, the Ravens netted Temple cornerback Tavon Young, who they think can compete with veteran Kyle Arrington at the nickel position after being impressed with his work at the Senior Bowl.
Then, they took receiver Chris Moore, who averaged an impressive 22.0 yards per catch over his final two seasons at Cincinnati. With Steve Smith planning to retire after 2016, Mike Wallace potentially only around for one season, and Kamar Aiken set to become a free agent next winter, Moore is an interesting name to add to a young group of receivers headlined by 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman.
Their third fourth-round pick, Nebraska offensive tackle Alex Lewis, gives Baltimore much-needed depth with Eugene Monroe’s future with the organization in doubt and right tackle Rick Wagner set to become a free agent after 2016. At the very least, the Ravens needed an upgrade from reserve tackle James Hurst and Lewis should be able to provide that. The selection came with character risk, however, as Lewis was sentenced to 45 days in jail and two years probation for pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault when he was attending the University of Colorado, but the Ravens claim to be “very comfortable” with him after talking extensively to staff at both schools and bringing the lineman to Baltimore for a daylong visit.
The Ravens had no excuse not to know what they were getting with defensive tackle Willie Henry after he was coached by John Harbaugh’s brother Jim and former Baltimore defensive coordinator Greg Mattison at the University of Michigan. Defensive tackle wasn’t a need, but the Ravens continue to build one of the deepest young defensive fronts in the NFL.
Finally, Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon was incredibly still on the board with the 134th overall pick and was immediately labeled by some pundits as one of the biggest steals of the final day. Added to a crowded group of running backs with no clear No. 1 option, Dixon could emerge as the starter sooner rather than later and was even regarded by some experts as the second-best running back in the draft behind Ezekiel Elliot, who went as the fourth overall pick on Thursday. It’s difficult not to get excited about his big-play potential as a receiver out of the backfield when you watch his college tape.
The five picks were impressive on paper as ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay even said it may have been the best fourth round he’d ever seen from any given team.
Their fifth-round selection brought the customary small-school prospect in Grand Valley State pass rusher Matt Judon, who collected 20 sacks as the consensus best defensive player in Division II football and impressed at the scouting combine. Before automatically scoffing at the lower level of competition, Ravens fans will remember that Brandon Williams was a Division II standout at Missouri Southern State a few years ago and is now one of the best nose tackles in the NFL.
Judon felt like a worthy gamble as the 146th pick of the draft.
“I remember texting [Harbaugh] and saying, ‘This kid from Grand Valley State is having a great workout,'” said DeCosta about watching Judon at the combine. “And John said, ‘I know. We’ve got to spend more time looking at this guy.’ That’s the great thing about the combine is you get a chance to see guys from all different conferences and backgrounds and levels of football competing on the same stage. He had all the skills you look for — the athletic ability, the size, and he had the production on tape [and] the ability on tape.”
But the best story of the weekend came when the Ravens tabbed Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds with their penultimate pick of the draft. Of course, it’s no sure thing that he’ll be able to make the transition to the next level as a wide receiver and return specialist, but Baltimore wouldn’t have made such a high-profile pick in the sixth round if the organization didn’t feel like he had a solid chance this summer to make the team.
Reynolds was already a household name locally after scoring an NCAA Division I record 88 touchdowns over his four years in Annapolis — amazingly breaking the record held by his new teammate Dixon — but the Ravens were impressed with the work he has already put in running routes as a receiver and working as a return specialist with former three-time Pro Bowl selection Brian Mitchell. The hope is that Reynolds could eventually turn into an effective slot receiver and returner reminiscent of former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver — and Indiana quarterback — Antwaan Randle El.
The entire area will be rooting for him.
“What a great story,” Newsome said. “We were at the East-West [Shrine] game, and Eric and I were sitting there, and on Day 2 he said, ‘Are you really paying attention to Keenan Reynolds?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he’s doing some things that are catching our eye.’ It’s just something we kept in the back of our mind. He came here for our local pro day, and he did a good job there.”
With their final pick of the 2016 draft, the Ravens added 6-foot-1 cornerback Maurice Canady out of Virginia to give them 11 selections, their highest total since 2003.
After a nondescript first two days — at least if overlooking whether the Ravens would have drafted left tackle Laremy Tunsil had it not been for the infamous marijuana video released on Twitter — the final day had some of everything for the Ravens. It brought a high number of picks, some interesting upside, an off-field risk, the addressing of needs, a Harbaugh brother connection, a small-school sleeper, and a fantastic story involving one of the best local sports role models in recent memory.
We know at least a few of these third-day picks won’t work out. That’s just the nature of the business.
But the final day’s haul carried enough intrigue to potentially turn a solid 2016 draft into a special one. All teams around the league talked about how much they liked their draft classes on Saturday, but you could sense that the Ravens were gushing a little more than usual as Newsome went as far as saying he didn’t know if he’s ever felt as good about a collection of talent. Even with some of the Ravens’ recent drafting pains, those words shouldn’t be easily dismissed when you consider his body of work over the last two decades in Baltimore.
In a few years, we’ll remember the final day of the 2016 draft having plenty of sizzle for the Ravens — at least as much as the final four rounds are capable of having. But they’ll ultimately need the substance to be there to help them get back to a championship-caliber level after a 5-11 season a year ago.
If not, the weekend will be remembered as nothing more than a missed opportunity with so many picks.
“The board came off, basically, the way we thought it would,” Newsome said. “We were able to get some good young talent to come in here and compete to make this roster. Right now, the Baltimore Ravens are a much better football team.”
Time will reveal if they really are.