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Eisenberg: Tough, But Fair, To Expect Immediate Starter

Posted May 6, 2014

Only five percent of rookies start NFL-wide, but with the No. 17 pick, it can be done.


Some fans are hoping the Ravens come away from the 2014 draft with a couple of plug-and-play starters.

It’s an inevitable wish, but if the past is any indicator, it’s asking a lot.

Of the Ravens’ 39 draft picks since 2009, quite a few played roles as rookies, but only four were fulltime starters – Matt Elam in 2013, Kelechi Osemele in 2012, Torrey Smith in 2011 and Michael Oher in 2009.

According to my abacus, that means slightly more than 10 percent of the Ravens’ recent picks have started right away.

Sounds like a disappointing figure? Think again. Rookies generally make up around five percent of starting lineups across the NFL at any given time.

With that in mind, it’s actually kind of silly that so much of the pre-draft blah-blah focuses on whether teams can fill immediate needs. Sure, the Ravens could stand to add both an offensive tackle and a safety who start right away, but they’ll defy some long odds if they actually pull it off.

Of course, a draft pick isn’t a failure just because he fails to crack the first team as a rookie. Lardarius Webb, Dennis Pitta, Arthur Jones and Jimmy Smith weren’t first-teamers as rookies, but they all developed into starters and valued contributors. That’s actually the typical arc for most successful players, a one-year apprenticeship of sorts followed by a promotion to a steady job.

And a rookie doesn’t have to start to have an impact. Marlon Brown caught seven touchdown passes last year as an undrafted free agent. Courtney Upshaw, Bernard Pierce and Justin Tucker (another undrafted free agent) were important puzzle pieces in 2012. Pernell McPhee had a bunch of sacks in 2011.

Immediate impact obviously is important. The Ravens didn’t get much from any of their 2013 rookies other than Elam and Marlon Brown. They could stand to get more from their 2014 class. I would go so far as to say they need to get more.

But immediate impact is just one metric used to grade picks and the overall quality of draft classes, and in my mind, it’s not as important as long-range impact. In other words, while it’s great if a guy is good enough to start as a rookie, what really matters is whether he’s good enough to play a major role for five or six years.

The Ravens like to wait three years before they start making judgments about young players. They’re certainly counting on second-year guys such as Arthur Brown, Brandon Williams and Kyle Juszczyk to produce more in 2014 than they did as rookies in 2013.

Having said that, I think it’s fair to expect the Ravens to draft an immediate starter with the No. 17 pick in the first round Thursday night. That’s one reason why I’ve stood my ground in suggesting they use the pick rather than trade it and move back: drafting sooner than usual, they could really grab an elite player who is ready to step in and start.

But it’s asking a lot to expect them to pick up plug-and-play starters at both No. 17 and No. 48, their second-round slot, or at No. 17 and No. 79, the first of their two third-round slots.

If you’re expecting it, you’re expecting a lot.

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The NFL draft has become such a big deal that it will generate plenty of buzz whenever it’s held. But for the record, I like it better in late April than now.

The league pushed it back two weeks this year because New York’s Radio City Music Hall booked a conflicting show. Annoyingly, that show ultimately was cancelled so the draft could have unfolded at the usual time.

The delay has mostly just produced two extra weeks of pre-draft chatter, just what the world needs. ESPN’s Mel Kiper might explode any minute. I know I’m suffering from draft fatigue. Meanwhile, most teams have been ready to pick for quite awhile. Newsome acknowledged last week that the Ravens had their board up and ready by late April, as usual.

There’s talk that the league may make more changes to the event, possibly move it out of New York (sounds good) or add a fourth day (huh?). But no matter where it goes or how long it lasts, I’m hoping they move it back to where it belongs, in late April.

 

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