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Late for Work: How the Changing NFL Draft Landscape Adds Importance for Ravens

GM Eric DeCosta
GM Eric DeCosta

Changing NFL Draft Landscape Puts Pressure on Ravens to Succeed

The new era of college football, with name image and likeness deals at the forefront, has made an impact that's reverberating into the NFL Draft. Fewer underclassmen are available, meaning fewer draftable players.

This has added importance on nailing the next two drafts for the Ravens, The Baltimore Sun’s Brian Wacker wrote.

"Because of the perfect storm of the pandemic and newfound financial gains for players who might previously have been inclined to enter the draft early, this year's class includes just 58 players who still had college eligibility remaining," Wacker wrote. "That's the fewest since 2011. Only five years ago, there were a record 135 players who entered the draft early."

The lack of depth in the draft could leave the Ravens, who prioritize building their roster through the draft, struggling to gain the fiscal impact of quality talent on rookie contracts.

"… the Ravens' handful of core stars are only going to get more expensive over the next three years and beyond," Wacker wrote. "For example, quarterback and two-time NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson ($32.4 million), inside linebacker Roquan Smith ($13.5 million) and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike ($11 million) already account for more than 20% of the team's salary cap this year after signing lucrative extensions."

"[This is what happens] when you have a quarterback no longer on a rookie deal plus a lot of other really, really good players on your roster who have already been paid or are soon to be paid," ESPN draft analyst and former NFL scout Field Yates told The Baltimore Sun. "But this is all part of a larger, more complicated web that they have always done an excellent job of managing. The draft is going to end up being a friend in a lot of ways."

The change hasn't sparked concern for Baltimore, Yates told The Baltimore Sun. The Ravens' method of building through the draft should remain intact with premium positions coming through the draft and not free agency.

"Cornerback and offensive tackle are not exactly spots in free agency where a lot of great players hit the open market, so the Ravens might feel their best way to attack those two positions is in the draft," Yates told The Baltimore Sun. "The offensive tackle class I do think there are possibilities of players that last late into the late portion of the second round, but both of those [positions] are areas where 30 is the only place where I feel confident they could address one of those two issues."

The Best Player Available Trap, And How the Ravens Have Avoided It

The Ravens' motto pertaining to the draft has been to draft the best player available. It has paid dividends, as they most recently netted safety Kyle Hamilton and center Tyler Linderbaum, who both earned Pro Bowl honors in their second season.

But The Ringer’s Sheil Kapadia argues staying true to your board is a trap for general managers.

"The draft process can feel unnecessarily complicated. Oftentimes, general managers will justify a pick with a very simple explanation: 'We took the best player available,'" Kapadia wrote. "Teams have to factor in positional value and upside in a big, big way. Getting top-10 quarterback play (or even top-20 quarterback play) from a player on a rookie contract is just so much more valuable than getting the same level of play at a different position."

Kapadia's argument is geared more toward quarterback-needy teams, saying they should go after the higher-risk quarterbacks and how a middling quarterback's impact is greater than the lesser-valued positions.

But Baltimore has its quarterback, a two-time MVP. And in having him, the Ravens have been granted the ability to not stress the positional value Kapadia preaches.

"The nerds (you didn't think I forgot about you all, did you?) are right: Positional value matters," Kapadia wrote. "My friend Bill Barnwell of ESPN recently wrote a column that included veteran average annual salaries for the top 10 players at every position. For quarterbacks, the average is more than $46 million per year. For centers, the average salary is nearly $10 million per year."

In having Jackson, the Ravens can go after less praised roles. They avoid the trap and pick the best safety in the draft, or center. They can pursue the pieces pundits applaud with the coined phrase, "that's such a Ravens pick."

Zrebiec's 7-Round Mock Draft Comes Away with First-Round Corner, Three O-linemen

The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec shared his final seven-round mock draft for the Ravens before the draft on Thursday.

Here's a look at the first three picks and his comments on them:

Round 1 (No. 30): Alabama CB Kool-Aid McKinstry

"The preference here would be to trade back and get an additional Day 2 pick, and I think there's a decent chance that's what DeCosta does Thursday night. Washington, which has second-round picks at Nos. 36 and 40, three third-rounders and rumored to be eyeing a move back into the first round, is a potential trade partner. However, DeCosta will have to be confident there will be a player available the Ravens really like. … For this mock, the Ravens stay put and draft McKinstry, a smart and athletic corner who never missed a game at Alabama and plays with the type of intelligence and intensity that Baltimore would love. At 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, McKinstry doesn't have elite speed, but he's long, plays under control and has very good technique. He'll have a chance to contribute immediately at outside cornerback, where the Ravens lack depth."

Round 3, (No. 76) (from Broncos): Notre Dame OT Blake Fisher

"If the Ravens are going to come out of this draft with a plug-and-play right tackle — and they need to after trading Morgan Moses to the New York Jets — it feels imperative they do it with their first or second pick. Fisher is a big (6-foot-5, 310 pounds) and athletic blocker with long arms and quick feet. He battled consistency issues at Notre Dame and has a lot of developing to do, but the Ravens have a ton of trust in offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris' ability to teach and develop. Fisher is good enough to compete for the starting job from the jump."

Round 3, (No. 93): North Carolina WR Devontez Walker

"As much as team officials have downplayed the need at wideout, it seems unlikely DeCosta won't try and grab another pass catcher given the talent in this receiver class. Adding Walker, who is 6-foot-1, 193 pounds and ran a 4.36 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine, makes a ton of sense because he'd bring much-needed diversity to the Ravens' wide receiver corps. He's a big and fast receiver who challenges defenses vertically and creates separation with his long strides. The Ravens have targets when you look at their wide receivers and tight ends. What they don't have are enough home run threats. That's Walker."

Ravens Will Face a Top 5 Hardest Schedule for 2024 NFL Season

Per usual, the Ravens won't have a cakewalk to the NFL playoffs in 2024. In fact, it will be a tougher schedule than last season, according to Sharp Football Analysis' Warren Sharp, who calculated the Ravens' schedule fourth-toughest in the NFL. The only teams with greater difficulty, in order, are the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns.

It comes as no surprise to see three of the top five hardest schedules come from the AFC North. It was the top-ranked division heading into last season and finished with three teams winning double-digit games, the only division to do so. Since then, the divisions seemingly only improved as the Steelers signed quarterback Russell Wilson and some of the Ravens' biggest free agents signed with the Steelers, Browns and Bengals.

Getting back to the playoffs will be no easy feat for Baltimore, or any of the teams with the hardest schedules.

"Of the 17 teams that actually had the hardest 2023 schedules, only 4 went to the playoffs (Steelers, Browns, Ravens, and Rams) with 4-of-17 going over their win total," Sharp wrote.

The Ravens defied the odds last season, overcoming the fourth-toughest schedule in 2023 – the same odds they'll face in 2024.

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