Eisenberg: Ravens Draft Illustrates Major Philosophical Shift

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As always, there's plenty to discuss now that the Ravens have finished the draft. Here are a couple of interesting questions to ponder:

  • Who will start at cornerback? Veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr are the best bet, at least initially, but what the Ravens love most about top pick Marlon Humphrey is his ability to jam receivers at the line, cutting off the short passing game so many NFL teams rely on. He's only 20, but I think things could get interesting.

 - Who will emerge as the heir to Terrell Suggs? It's not fair to expect any of the young pass rushers to become that dominant, but it's safe to say his replacement is now in the house. Will it be one of the newcomers, Tyus Bowser or Tim Williams? What about holdovers Matt Judon and Za'Darius Smith? The race is on.

I could give you more positional talking points, but honestly, I'm feeling the need to go up to 35,000 feet for a big-picture assessment. My No. 1 takeaway from the Ravens' draft is how clearly it illustrates that they've undertaken a major philosophical shift.

They're going to be taking a new approach going forward, trying to win games a different way. And what's funny is their new approach actually is their old approach.

For years, the Ravens relied on their defense to carry them and hoped their offense supplied enough yards and points in support. The arrangement generally worked, as evidenced by the Ravens' two Super Bowl triumphs and many playoff appearances.

After they won Super Bowl 47 four years ago, though, they modified their approach. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were gone. Their quarterback had taken them all the way and was paid accordingly. The Ravens endeavored to surround Joe Flacco with all the tools and weapons he needed to carry them. Their priority became giving him the best possible chance to succeed.

How did it go? Well, the Ravens have gone 31-33 since the Super Bowl and made one playoff appearance in four years.

I'm not suggesting Flacco deserves the blame. That's not remotely fair. It took a village. Owner Steve Bisciotti said in January that everyone needs to do a better job.

Heading into 2017, Flacco is still the Ravens' most important player. You can't conjure a playoff scenario for them without the quarterback playing well.

But after a draft in which the Ravens selected four defensive players in the first three rounds, which followed a free agency period in which they focused almost solely on their defense, it's clear they expect their defense to assume a larger percentage of any winning calculus.

"I expect those guys to be great," Head Coach John Harbaugh said Saturday about his defense.

The defense actually was pretty good last year, finishing with a No. 7 league ranking. But when a team focuses this intently on one side of the ball, it's making a statement. More is expected.

GM Ozzie Newsome explained Saturday that the front office didn't necessarily set out to focus on bolstering the defense this offseason. "We had our eyes on some offensive players" in free agency, he said. But they wound up signing defensive players first and only have so much salary cap room.

"And now we will build on that because of this draft," Newsome said.

However it came about, the Ravens certainly are comfortable with the idea of riding a strong defense. For them, it's like putting on their favorite pair of old shoes.

You can almost hear the organization saying, "Enough with this missing the playoffs. Let's get back to doing what we do best and take our chances."

Obviously, they're still going to need plenty of offense to get anywhere, and they have work to do on that subject. Coming out of the draft, they still need a starting center and a starting right tackle. They also need playmakers, but for the first time in their history, they didn't draft an offensive skill-position player this year.

But if the offense can't bury opponents, well, Justin Tucker turns any drive past midfield into a scoring opportunity. And now the defense is built to carry a team.

Sound familiar?

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