As was the case with all facets of life, scouting for the NFL Draft had to change amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Every team around the league was trying to figure it out.
For the Ravens, the strategy dated back to last year when General Manager Eric DeCosta met with his staff.
"We had some really good meetings as a scouting staff last year," DeCosta said Sunday after the draft wrapped up. "One of the things we talked about was the pandemic and what college football might look like and how that might affect the Draft."
The Ravens probably tweaked countless more operations, but two of the biggest changes that DeCosta and Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz pointed to Sunday were a preference for big-school prospects and a sort of forgiveness for 2020 struggles.
Historically, Baltimore has hit on many gems from smaller schools, including Matthew Judon (2016, Grand Valley State), Nick Boyle (2015, Delaware), Brandon Williams (2013, Missouri Southern), Lardarius Webb (2009, Nicholls State) and Joe Flacco (2008, Delaware). This list goes on.
But DeCosta has shown a proclivity for bigger schools, particularly from the Power 5 conferences. In each of his three drafts as general manager, he's selected one player from outside a Power 5 conference. It was Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech, 2019), followed by James Proche II (SMU, 2020) and Brandon Stephens (SMU, 2021). Stephens transferred to SMU from UCLA.
This year, DeCosta directed his scouting staff's attention even more on Power 5 schools. With the uncertainty of COVID-19, the Ravens felt the big schools were a safer bet.
"It just seemed wise at the time to focus most of our attention on big school guys, and we tried to do that," DeCosta said. "Most of our players that we really liked this year were Power 5 conference-type of guys, big school guys."
The other commonality with some of the Ravens' picks is they had "down" 2020 production compared to 2019.
Wide receiver Rashod Bateman went from 1,219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns to 472 yards and two touchdowns. After getting five sacks in 2019, Odafe Oweh had none in 2020. After looking like a potential first-round cornerback in 2019, Shaun Wade struggled at times on the perimeter last season.
WR Rashod Bateman
2019: 13 games, 60 receptions, 1,219 yards, 20.3 yards per catch, 11 touchdowns
2020: 5 games, 36 receptions, 472 yards, 13.1 yards per catch, 2 touchdowns
EDGE Odafe Oweh
2019: 13 games (1 start), 21 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
2020: 7 games (7 starts), 38 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles
CB Shaun Wade
2019: 13 games, 26 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 9 passes defensed, 1 interception
2020: 8 games, 35 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 6 passes defensed, 2 interceptions
Bateman contracted COVID-19 last summer, which took a heavy toll on him considering he also has asthma. Bateman said he lost about 10 pounds. "It just affected my body, the way I performed, the way I fatigued and things like that," he said.
Oweh played well and generated a lot of pressure, but the sacks just didn't materialize. Wade said there were many other contributing factors for his 2020 troubles, including dealing with turf toe, a knee problem and family tragedies.
Of course, the Ravens didn't throw out the 2020 tape, but they took it with a grain of salt while still evaluating how a player competed. A player's 2019 tape told a more accurate story.
"It was challenging for a lot of these college kids. They've got a lot to balance, and really, each conference did it differently. So, you see the Big Ten [Conference] and the Pac-12 [Conference], they were the last ones to kick it back off, and obviously, some players from those conferences elected to opt-out or came back in a little late," Hortiz said.
"Shaun was one of those guys that opted-out and came back in. Getting ready for the season, you're sitting at home, you get sent home, you're coming back in, you've got a couple weeks to get ready. Some guys went through some struggles, and you just watch how they competed. You know they may have been dealing with something this year. While they were playing, maybe [it wasn't] the same preparation, in terms of getting ready for the season. You just watch the competition on film, and then you go back to last year's film, when they had a more normal season, and you look at it, and you match it up, and see where they improved or what they did better that year, and you put the two together. I think our scouts did a great job of marrying the two years up and coming up with an opinion on the players."
Check out shots of wide receiver Tylan Wallace, cornerback Shaun Wade, EDGE Daelin Hayes and fullback Ben Mason.
The Ravens got Wade with pick No. 160 in the fifth round. Bateman and Oweh were also considered steals by some media members late in the first round. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace was considered a Day 2 (possibly second round) pick and Baltimore got him at No. 131 in the fourth round.
Heading into the draft, there was a lot of chatter about how teams' boards would differ more from each other this year because there was less information (fewer games, no Combine, fewer in-person interviews, etc.) to utilize.
According to the media scouts, the Ravens got tremendous value with several of their 2021 picks. While COVID-19 brought new challenges, still getting good value was nothing new for Baltimore.
"We've been through it now 25 years, and good players fall," DeCosta said. "It's just inherent in all of us. We like different things. We like different foods, different movies. We like different players. And so, you're going to get some good players if you just stay patient, you do the work, you trust the system, you give everybody a voice – you'll get good players."