Whether starting over or attempting to stay on top, the draft remains the lifeblood of long-term team building in the NFL.
No team understands that better than the Ravens, who currently have the highest percentage of “homegrown” players in the league and have won a franchise-best 25 regular-season games over the last two years. But this year’s draft finds Baltimore at the intersection between reaping the benefits of having a star quarterback on a rookie contract and bracing for the lucrative payday required for former league MVP Lamar Jackson. A reduced salary cap because of the pandemic has only complicated the quest to take the next step after back-to-back exits in the divisional round.
The Ravens’ biggest needs are evident at this stage of the offseason, but hearing general manager Eric DeCosta share what he believes to be the biggest strengths of the 2021 draft inspires confidence in their ability to improve the roster next week.
“Offensive line, I think, is a strong position this year,” said DeCosta, who also noted there being “five or six strong guys” at the quarterback position. “You have tackles, you have guards, you have some centers in the first couple of rounds — guys that can come in and really impact your team. Edge pass rush … we see probably somewhere between five to eight guys in the first couple rounds that would have a chance to come in and really be legitimate edge setter, pass rusher-type of guys that can do a multitude of different things for you. And then wide receiver, it was a strong position last year. I think it’s a strong position this year, and you have a bunch of guys in the first three rounds that can really come in and compete to be significant players for you early on.”
DeCosta might as well have been rattling off his roster’s biggest needs when speaking about the draft’s biggest strengths. The free-agent addition of right guard Kevin Zeitler went a long way in correcting a problem from a year ago, but another early-round option at center or guard would leave the interior offensive line in excellent shape for 2021 and beyond. Offensive tackle is going to be a significant need sooner or later with Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. very likely to depart as a free agent next offseason — if he isn’t traded before then — and star left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s health still a topic of conversation.
We probably don’t need to belabor questions at wide receiver any longer, regardless of DeCosta’s recent claim of being “insulted” by perceptions that the Ravens are lacking at the position. Signing the oft-injured Sammy Watkins didn’t eliminate that concern, and it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens taking the next step without real improvement at wide receiver. But they’re also a run-first offense unlike any other in the NFL, an approach that has won a slew of games over the last three years and prompts fair questions about how many resources to invest at receiver.
Offensive line and wide receiver are among the consensus biggest strengths of this draft, but there have been more diverse opinions about the edge defenders with some seeing no shortage of good options over the first few rounds and others concerned about both the bust potential of many raw options and the absence of a blue-chip prospect like Chase Young in last year’s draft. For example, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh has been a popular pick mocked to the Ravens for his impressive physical gifts and perceived upside, but he was a rotational player prior to 2020 and didn’t register a sack in seven games for the Nittany Lions last season. That’s enough to make one take pause with the 27th pick even if Oweh develops into a star at the next level.
There’s also the fascinating dynamic of how the Ravens have approached their pass rush in recent years by using the blitz more than any team in the NFL. Not only has Baltimore not drafted an outside linebacker in the first round since 2003, but successful Day 3 picks such as Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon have recently departed in free agency without much of a fight from the Ravens. After trading a 2021 third-round pick for former Pro Bowl pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue last October, DeCosta showed little reluctance walking away when the former Maryland standout wasn’t a great fit in Wink Martindale’s scheme. In contrast, the Ravens re-signed the cheaper and more versatile Tyus Bowser, who has just 10 1/2 sacks over four seasons.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the Ravens are as concerned about the outside linebacker position and their pass rush as the rest of the football world, especially when considering their top-shelf secondary. Perhaps another Day 2 edge option with upside would be good enough in their minds, especially if that pick is accompanied by a post-draft veteran signing in early May.
“One of the things that really benefits us is I think our coaches and scouts are very aligned on the type of qualities that we want at that position,” DeCosta said. “I think we’ve been blessed to have been in the same scheme although the scheme has changed slightly over the years. We know what an outside linebacker looks like, and I think our coaches do a great job of developing those types of players.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years to find some players that we were probably able to get at a really good spot that present a very good value to us long-term.”
Such philosophies at outside linebacker and with their offense in general leave the Ravens in a position to stay devoted to the “best player available” mantra as much as possible. No matter what DeCosta or any other general manager tells you, need is always a strong consideration, but the best teams prioritize adding premium talent anywhere over reaching for marginal improvement at a single spot of weakness.
Next week is more about the future than solely maximizing the Ravens’ chances in 2021, especially with a roster becoming more expensive and leaving less margin for error. That’s why it’s difficult to predict what they’ll do despite their perceived needs aligning with some of the draft’s biggest strengths.
But that helps explain why the organization has been so successful for so long.
“What we’re not going to do is pass up an elite player or a highly-skilled player at a position if we think that guy can upgrade us over time,” DeCosta said. “And what we’ve seen, and we see this is every single year — this is an important point — as you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team, it can change. It can change overnight. It’s a very fluid process.”