After Ray Lewis departed and Dannell Ellerbe bolted for Miami, the conventional wisdom among NFL insiders was that the Ravens would use their top pick in the 2013 draft on an inside linebacker.
It made sense. While they supposedly always adhere to their "best player available" philosophy, the Ravens didn't really have any experienced inside linebackers; the only returning starter, Jameel McClain, missed the Super Bowl run with a serious neck injury and wasn't cleared to play.
But the conventional wisdom about the Ravens shifted when they surprisingly signed Rolando McClain, the talented but troubled former Alabama linebacker who had been cut by the Oakland Raiders. Mr. Draft himself, ESPN's Mel Kiper, stated that the signing gave the Ravens the flexibility to consider other positions with their pick.
Inside linebacker was still a need for them, Kiper said, and McClain obviously had to stay out of trouble, but the Ravens "can pretty much not have to worry about saying, 'We have to have this need filled via the draft,'" Kiper said.
Two weeks later, in the wake of McClain's latest arrest in Decatur, Ala., the wisdom of ignoring shifting needs and sticking with the "best player available" strategy has never been more apparent.
McClain's future in Baltimore is in doubt. The Ravens might cut him, deciding he isn't worth the worry. But they also might elect to wait and see what happens once they get their hands on him. It appears they're going to let the legal process play out first. He is owed due process. Who knows what might happen to the charges?
I'm having trouble advising them just to cut him. They're in the business of winning football games, not making moral stands. They have nothing to lose by keeping him because they don't owe him a cent of guaranteed money. And if they can somehow get him squared away, well, he can play football.
But whatever they decide, the precariousness of McClain's future illustrates how important it is NOT to consider needs or any other factors when drafting young talent.
Needs come and go. They're fleeting, always changing. They might come into sharp focus for a few weeks, fade in importance after a signing, then suddenly reappear. With Rolando McClain, the Ravens seemingly went a long way toward filling a need, only to see it open up again within days.
A team that tries to match its needs with draft picks is asking for trouble, risking bypassing more talented players just to fill a temporary hole.
It's far simpler and smarter just to take the best player available, regardless of position or whether he fills a need. As Yogi Berra might say, you end up with more better players that way.
After the Ravens ranked 24th in total offense and went 6-10 in 2005, the conventional wisdom was they should draft to improve their offense. But they selected Haloti Ngata, a defensive tackle, with their first pick. It didn't address a need; the Ravens ranked ninth in rushing defense in 2005. But Ngata has become an All-Pro, the backbone of their defense.
If they had succumbed to the urge to fill a need, they wouldn't have Ngata today.
They didn't need a running back in 2008 with Willis McGahee coming off a Pro Bowl season, but they took Ray Rice in the second round because he was there. That worked out decently.
With the uncertainty about Rolando McClain suddenly more glaring, inside linebacker certainly ranks as the Ravens' top need. But they also need a left tackle, a safety, a receiver. And owning the last pick in the first round, they're beholden to an extent to what happens before them … who falls to them.
Since they've said they like at least 32 players in this crop, my guess is they will take someone with that pick rather than trade out of the first round. It might be an inside linebacker, but it also might not be, even though they need one.
There are always other ways to address a need, free agency, a second-round pick. The Ravens have a history of finding undrafted free agent linebackers. Whatever happens, the most important thing is not whether they fill the need, but whether they reach with the pick. They seldom do.