First Ravens draft reminds how luck remains part of rigorous process

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On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Ravens selecting Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis with the first two picks in franchise history, general manager Eric DeCosta appropriately described the NFL draft as a “luck-driven” process.

What if the Arizona Cardinals had selected Ogden with the third overall pick of that first draft in 1996, leaving general manager Ozzie Newsome to take problematic running back Lawrence Phillips like owner Art Modell had originally wished? Frankly, that’s the kind of failed pick that costs jobs. Imagine if one of the three teams that selected linebackers before the 26th pick had preferred the undersized Lewis to Kevin Hardy, John Mobley, or Reggie Brown.

Talk about the course and identity of a new team in a new city being forever altered without Ogden anchoring the blindside or Lewis doing his iconic dance coming out of the stadium tunnel.

It’s impossible to imagine a Super Bowl XXXV championship without those two Hall of Famers leading the way on each side of the ball. Perhaps the Ravens would have been so lousy over those first couple seasons that they would have had the opportunity to select Peyton Manning first overall in 1998 to reboot and change their fortunes. Or they might have taken Ryan Leaf.

The alternatives are enough to make one shudder.

We could speculate about the butterfly effect of not getting Ogden and Lewis all day, but does the cash-strapped Modell soon sell the team to an owner lacking faith in Newsome and the rest of a young front office and electing to start anew? Do the Ravens still become one of the model franchises in the NFL without those historic selections or would they more closely resemble an also-ran like the Jacksonville Jaguars or Detroit Lions a quarter century later?

“I look at the draft in many ways, and I have to say it’s a luck-driven process,” said DeCosta about the organization’s success in the draft on Monday. “If you have more picks, you’re going to hit on more players, and that goes back to a philosophy that I think Ozzie started back in 1996. We started really going after picks and trading back as much as we could in any given round.

“We’ve had some success; we’ve also had some big misses. We’ve had a lot of picks, and I think that’s the No. 1 indicator to see teams who have success in the draft, is how many chances they have to draft good players.”

Of course, we know the draft is more than just good fortune with it being a great example of the philosophy that luck is what occurs when rigorous preparation meets opportunity. We know nobody’s perfect as even the second round of that 1996 draft illustrated when Newsome traded multiple picks to move up in hopes of drafting tight end Jason Dunn and instead settled for cornerback DeRon Jenkins when Dunn came off the board a pick earlier. Meanwhile, future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins was taken by Philadelphia just six spots later.  

You never know for sure, which is what makes the draft so much fun and, at times, excruciating.

That’s why it’s important to maintain the proper perspective. You can celebrate the organization’s excellent overall track record over more than two decades while acknowledging a blind spot — like at wide receiver — with no need for anyone to be “insulted.” As DeCosta has said in recent years, a deficiency can come down to a need to take more swings, something the Ravens have done over the last two drafts with three wide receivers selected over the first three rounds. We’ll see if they reap the rewards of the increased efforts at the position, but fair skepticism remains.

With the entire draft process of the last year taking place in the midst of a pandemic that’s spawned unprecedented disruption and uncertainty, no one should be surprised to see DeCosta add to his current slate of seven picks in next week’s draft, regardless of the positions he targets. It makes even more sense for a roster that will soon include a lucrative nine-figure contract for star quarterback Lamar Jackson with only so much salary cap space to go around. The more raffle tickets you have, the better.

“We see a lot of talented players at the starter level potentially,” said DeCosta of this year’s draft class. “If we have the chance to get a pick or two extra, then we’d probably do that. We don’t necessarily want to have 11 or 12 picks this year, but there is a sweet spot. Just looking out next year, we think we’ll have a chance to have some additional picks. The idea is to always have some surplus picks in your back pocket that you can use.

“I think we see the opportunity over the next couple of years to probably draft somewhere around 20 players. We like that number. It keeps us young, but also experienced across the roster, and that should give us a chance to compete long-term.”

All of those picks combined are highly unlikely to provide anything close to what the Ravens got out of those first two selections in franchise history, but the mere possibility is why we love the dream that is the NFL draft.

With a little luck, it just might put the Ravens on the path to another Super Bowl.