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Eisenberg: Ravens Relying On Draft Picks

Posted Sep 2, 2012

This year's roster is studded with former picks playing large roles.

This weekend’s paring of their roster is pretty much the final act of the Ravens’ preparations for the 2012 season. All that’s left is the week of practices leading up to the opener against the Bengals on September 10.

There weren’t many major revelations in the final cuts. The biggest undrafted surprises, Bobby Rainey and Denote Thompson, survived. Curtis Painter didn’t; although he looked like an NFL quarterback in the preseason, the Ravens haven’t kept three guys at his position since 2009.  It was unfortunate to see Omar Brown get cut after his strong preseason, but he landed on the practice squad, a satisfactory ending.

The roster looks pretty much like everyone thought it would, mostly players who were on the team before, blended with newcomers obtained either in the draft or free agency – your basic blueprint for a veteran contender. There’s a bit more speed, especially at wide receiver. The backups on the offensive line are versatile but really young. The biggest surprise is the new kicker. The biggest question is who will rush the passer.

But what really struck me, looking at the final 53, was just how much the Ravens are counting on their drafting abilities this season. Throughout their lineup, they’re looking to young guys selected in the past few years to replace veterans.

Most of these young guys aren’t first-round picks, either; they were taken later, in the guts of the draft, when the going is always less certain.

Departed defensive line starter Cory Redding is being replaced by a pair of fifth-round picks, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, and outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (injured) and Jarret Johnson (departed) are being replaced by a pair of second-round picks, Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw (and also Albert McClellan, an undrafted free agent of 2010).

Jimmy Smith, the team’s only first round pick since 2009, will see major time at cornerback, and at safety, rookie Christian Thompson, a fourth-round 2012 pick, is stepping into one of the vacated backup roles.

Offensively, the Ravens are hoping their third-round pick of 2012, running back Bernard Pierce, can replace Ricky Williams as Ray Rice’s backup, and they’re also counting on a quartet of recent picks – Kelechi Osemele, Jah Reid, Gino Gradkowski and Ramon Harewood – to back up their veteran line. Those are second-, third-, fourth- and sixth-rounders, for those scoring at home.

The Ravens spent free agent dollars on veterans to fill their No. 3 receiver slot and their vacancy at starting guard, two of their most pressing needs, but otherwise, they’re counting on the draft to fill holes.

They didn’t have much choice, of course, because they were up against the salary cap limit throughout the offseason, leaving them no choice but to grow their own solutions rather than go shopping. When they did shop, they had to be extra careful.

But given their history in the draft, they probably are just as happy going that route, anyway. Few teams have been more adept at identifying, selecting and developing useful players. Fifteen of their picks have gone on to make the Pro Bowl since 1996.

There’s even a history of drafting useful players in those middle rounds that they’re relying on this year. Their third-round pick in 2007 is now their best offensive lineman, Marshal Yanda. Their third-round pick in 2009 is now their best cover corner, Lardarius Webb. Their two biggest offensive playmakers, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith, were second-round picks. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were selected back-to-back in the third and fourth rounds in 2010.

The Ravens love their picks and believe in giving them the chance to develop. Even after cutting some three dozen guys in the past week, they still have all 15 of their selections from the past two drafts under their control, either on their roster, practice squad or injured reserve.

They have faith in their judgment, and this season, perhaps more than usual, they’re going to need to be rewarded for that faith if they want to accomplish what they have in mind.

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