Eisenberg: Strong Draft Can Guarantee Ravens A Playoff Shot


With the 2015 draft now less than a month away, we're officially into the heart of Mock Season, when every other person on the planet predicts which players will go where … in the first round.

Oh, I understand why there's so much fuss about that glittery first night. It's when the most talented players are taken, or at least, the ones who have opened scouts' eyes the widest. It's when teams are most likely to find the immediate help that could fill needs and make a difference in the upcoming season.

But teams do find help in other rounds, often enough that, honestly, the persistent focus on the first round is a misrepresentation. If you're adept at the draft, as the Ravens have shown they are, the last six rounds are just as important. So is the hurried grab for undrafted rookies after the event.

Earlier this week, Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti's told the team's PSL ticket holders in a conference call that the front office's priority for the rest of the offseason was re-signing cornerback Jimmy Smith, guard Marshal Yanda and kicker Justin Tucker to contract extensions. That's the ultimate compliment from a team that loses a lot of young talent due to the salary cap. These are the guys they want to keep. Smith was a first-round pick, a first-night guy, but Yanda was a third-round selection, a late second-night guy, and Tucker went undrafted – a no-night-at-all guy, if you will.

To repeat: Only one of the three players they want to retain was a first-round pick.

And what about all those homegrown players who recently signed lucrative free-agent deals with other teams after the Ravens elected not to retain them? Paul Kruger and Torrey Smith were second-round picks. Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones were fifth-rounders. Dannell Ellerbe was another undrafted free agent. Among the high-profile talent that left recently, only Michael Oher was a first-round selection.

There's a lot more to the draft than that glittery first round.

In the past decade, the Ravens haven't gotten what they wanted from some higher picks such as Mark Clayton, Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody (and they would like to see more from Courtney Upshaw and Matt Elam), but their 2014 starting lineup included fifth-round and second-round picks on the offensive line (Rick Wagner and Kelechi Osemele), a fourth-round pick at fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and a third-round pick at cornerback (Ladarius Webb). In the playoffs, their lineup included a fifth-round pick and undrafted free agent on the offensive line (John Urschel and James Hurst) and a third-round pick who caught a touchdown pass (Crockettt Gillmore).

When Bisciotti told fans during the conference call that he didn't think wide receiver was such a dire priority, he pointed to a seventh-round pick (Michael Campanaro) and two undrafted guys (Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken) as examples of the team's depth at wideout. (For the record, I think the Ravens DO need to add explosiveness at that position.)

It all goes to show why the draft – the whole draft – is always the biggest event of the Ravens' offseason, as opposed to free agency. Their blueprint for success revolves around bringing quality young players into their program … by the bushel, not just with their high picks.

Call it a financial plan. The more picks they hit on and the more players they find, the less veteran talent they have to acquire to fill in gaps in their lineup. That's how they keep their payroll down, enabling them to make competitive high-market offers to their own blue-chip players such as Yanda, Tucker and Smith (also Justin Forsett, Eugene Monroe, Dennis Pitta and other top players they have recently retained).

Sure, they're going to miss with some of their draft selections, as every team does. That's why they had to go into the marketplace and obtain a starting center (Jeremy Zuttah), a left tackle (Monroe), a tight end (Owen Daniels), a linebacker (Daryl Smith) and several safeties (Darian Stewart, Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis).

But as long as they continue to bring in new crops of useful players every year via the draft and the rookie free agent free-for-all (which has brought them Tucker, Hurst and Brown in recent years), they can duck their heads under the salary-cap ceiling and pretty much guarantee themselves a shot in the race for the playoffs. It's a painstaking, block-by-block building plan, but it works.

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