Eisenberg: Realistic Expectations For Ravens' Upcoming Draft

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The Ravens have made all sorts of moves to reconfigure their lineup since free agency began last month, but they still have holes to fill. They need starters at right tackle, center and inside linebacker. They could use an edge rusher and another wide receiver.

Next week's draft is widely regarded as their best opportunity to address those concerns, but I think it's a stretch to expect their incoming rookie crop to take care of the entire list.

I don't have statistical evidence supporting this contention, but if a draft contains two plug-and-play starters, that sure sounds like a major success.

At the Ravens' pre-draft press event earlier this month, Assistant GM Eric DeCosta said 80 percent of first-round picks and 50 percent of second-rounders eventually become starting-caliber players, and the numbers decline after that. Obviously, it's crucial that picks become useful. But remember, I'm talking about immediate starters here, not eventual starters. There's a big difference. I'm sure the percentages are lower.

The Ravens' 2016 draft produced two when offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis became immediate contributors. Cornerback Tavon Young also was starting by the end of the season. I thought it was a very good year, and my guess is the Ravens would be thrilled with the same results in 2017. Other than first-round selections such as Stanley and C.J. Mosley, few of their recent picks have started immediately.

What that means is it's likelier most of the Ravens' holes end up being filled by guys already on the roster, in their second or third pro seasons.

The player development pipeline receives far less attention than the draft as a potential tool of salvation, but it's just as important, if not more important.

Think about it. In 2017, the Ravens are hoping for help from an array of second-year and third-year players who have done more percolating than performing since they were drafted.

They'd love to see Kamalei Correa replace Zach Orr at linebacker. They're hoping Carl Davis and Bronson Kaufusi can take snaps in the defensive interior. They want wide receivers Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore and running back Kenneth Dixon to become difference-makers. They want to see Matt Judon and Za'Darius Smith sack quarterbacks.

That might sound like a lot of wishful thinking to some, but the Ravens are banking on a big lesson they've learned over the years: "A lot of times," Head Coach John Harbaugh said earlier this month, "a player makes his biggest jump between his first and second year."

It makes sense. A rookie joining a team has never sat in a pro classroom, spent an offseason in his team's strength program, or experienced pro-caliber coaching. Some players can still contribute immediately, but a majority are more able to do so after benefitting from some seasoning.

The Ravens' roster is loaded with players they've developed, and they're always losing "homegrown" talent to other teams, as with Kyle Juszczyk and Rick Wagner this year.

"We're great at it. We develop players, I'd say, as good or better than anybody in the history of the National Football League," Harbaugh said at the owners' meetings last month. "We work at it. We care about it. It's important to us."

He continued: "We're really proud of how we do that. It's huge for us. That's why I'm confident in our (young) guys. We expect them to step up. We expect all those guys to be championship-caliber guys for us next year." The fact that the player development program gets overlooked is no surprise. Unlike the draft, a splashy primetime affair watched by millions, the player development program unfolds privately, behind closed doors, on practice fields and in classrooms. There's nothing splashy about a bunch of young guys doggedly honing their craft with the goal of eventually earning snaps and starts.

Player development is a grind, almost always a study in incremental advancement. Some players eventually get there and help you fill holes, while others fall short. Either way, it takes time for truths to crystallize. You might want to keep that in mind while watching the draft next week.

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