Five thoughts on the Ravens' 2021 draft:
Beforehand, I was bullish on this being a year when the Ravens could use their top pick on an offensive lineman. It isn't sexy, but it just made sense given the Ravens' run-focused offense and their urge to better protect Lamar Jackson. The trade of Orlando Brown Jr. only intensified the need, I thought. In the end, though, the Ravens bypassed several O-line prospects and took wide receiver Rashod Bateman at No. 27. It surprised me, but did you see what happened to those O-line prospects? None went until well into the second round. So the Ravens weren't alone in thinking they'd be reaches at No. 27. "We're not going to reach on guys," GM Eric DeCosta said Saturday. With that in mind, I understand why the Ravens took Bateman. The other teams in their division are loading up on explosive playmakers. It's truly an arm's race in the AFC North. The Ravens have Jackson and several others, but they'll need more to keep pace, and their low-ranked passing attack was the obvious place to invest. What's wrong with adding a receiver who should be a difference-maker from Day 1? Nothing.
Admittedly, the Ravens' eschewing of the O-line in the first round became easier to swallow when they selected gargantuan guard Ben Cleveland in the third round. It isn't guaranteed that he'll start right away, but I'm guessing the organization believes he is a cut above the young interior O-linemen already on the roster. If so, Cleveland's addition crystallizes a viable plan for the O-line in 2021. Ronnie Stanley is the left tackle provided he recovers from the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season. Kevin Zeitler, the Ravens' top free-agent signing, is the right guard. If Cleveland (or another young lineman) is at left guard, Bradley Bozeman can move over a step and become the starter at center, the position he played at Alabama and, it so happens, a position the Ravens would love to upgrade and solidify. That leaves right tackle, where a hole exists after Brown's departure. But the Ravens have Tyre Phillips, a third-round pick just a year ago, and they also reportedly are in touch with several veteran free agents, including Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers' starting left tackle since 2015. Baltimore might need to draft a tackle in 2022 but there's no problem finding a short-term fix.
I'm not sure the Ravens drafted a 2021 starter for Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale even though they invested first-round and third-round picks in his unit. But honestly, outside linebacker was the only position on that side of the ball where a starting job possibly was up for grabs, and even that is unlikely given the re-signing of Tyus Bowser and the likely signing (in my mind) of a veteran pass rusher next week. But I'm sure Martindale isn't complaining about the front office's use of high picks on edge defender Odafe Oweh and defensive back Brandon Stephens. With both players, the Ravens prioritized explosive athleticism, versatility and potential over college productivity and plug-and-play skills. Oweh has only played football for five years and didn't register a sack in 2020. Stephens has only played defensive back for two years (after converting from running back) and registered just one interception in 2020. Those numbers and narratives probably scared off some teams, but the Ravens went with what they saw on tape and at their pro days. Oweh isn't just a pass rusher; he sets an edge against the run and has the speed to drop into pass coverage. Stephens played cornerback at SMU, but has the range to become a safety here. They're unconventional prospects who could develop into starters. Since when was Martindale's defense conventional?
Here is exactly what DeCosta said in 2019 about drafting and developing more productive wide receivers: "One of the biggest things that we have to do is just take some at-bats and swing. It's hard to be a .400 hitter if you're only at bat twice. We've got to take some chances." He said it at a pre-draft media function widely known as "the Liar's Lunch," but maybe the event needs a new nickname because DeCosta has kept his word and taken so many "swings" at wide receivers since then that his arms must be exhausted. The Ravens drafted one for the second time in 2021 and sixth time in the past three years Saturday when they used a fourth-round pick on Tylan Wallace, a playmaker who burned defenses throughout his career at Oklahoma State. Since 2019, the Ravens have used two first-round picks, two thirds, a fourth and a sixth on receivers, all of whom are still on the team. Needless to say, there'll be a serious competition for snaps and jobs, especially since the Ravens also signed veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency. It's hard to imagine a team accumulating this many young, talented receivers and not being more dynamic and efficient than the Ravens were in 2020. The end result of all those swings is the Ravens being positioned to change the narrative about them having issues with receivers. Now all they have to do is make some contact.
It was a relatively minor transaction that won't generate headlines, but a trade DeCosta made Saturday summed up what the Ravens want out of the draft this year. They sent two 2021 picks (a fourth and a sixth) to the Cardinals for one 2021 pick (a fifth) and a fourth in 2022. The result was one fewer pick this year and just eight overall, down two from a year ago and down four from 2018. Quite simply, the Ravens have made (and kept) so many picks in recent years that they don't have much room on their roster for new blood. As a result, they went for quality over quantity and tried to get as much value and versatility as possible out of the players they did take. Saturday's picks summed it up. Shaun Wade, a cornerback, can play outside or in the slot. Daelin Hayes, a defensive end, can line up upright or with his hand in the turf. Ben Mason was a hard-nosed tight end at Michigan who can also play fullback or H-back and "epitomizes what Ravens football is all about," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. Like Patrick Ricard, Mason also played some defensive line in college. As for Wallace, the receiver, "he was just too good for us not to take him," DeCosta said. It's a smaller-than-usual draft class brimming with the value the Ravens always seem to find.