Zrebiec: Filling Needs May Be a Theme for the Ravens in the Draft
While the Ravens share with pride their draft strategy remains best player available, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec sees the team modifying their approach to account for need this season.
Baltimore has just five picks, its fewest since 1999 (four picks). With monster-sized draft hauls the past three years (29 picks), the Ravens have a lot of budding youth on the roster. Now they just need to plug a few holes.
"The Ravens will always say that they are a best-player-available drafting team and there are plenty of examples of that, including last year, when they selected sliding safety Kyle Hamilton," Zrebiec wrote. "However, in the upcoming draft, they'll probably have to focus more on filling holes since they didn't do much of that in free agency. As of now, they only have five picks, so they're really not in position to draft luxury items."
The Ravens' top needs are cornerback, wide receiver, defensive line, interior offensive line and edge rusher. That's five positions with five picks.
While there are needs for the Ravens entering the draft, there aren't many, with starters returning at key positions on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
This, along with free agents no longer counting against the compensatory pick formula at the end of the month, could give the front office enough confidence to avoid being boxed into a needs-based draft.
Could Safety Brian Branch Be the Ravens' First-Round Option?
Debate has raged all offseason on whether the Ravens should take a wide receiver or cornerback at No. 22 overall. Few have strayed to suggest another position, but The Baltimore Banner’s Jonas Shaffer offers a compelling case to consider Alabama safety Brian Branch, beginning with the Ravens need at nickelback.
"In an age where three-wide-receiver formations dominate, the modern NFL base defense now features five defensive backs," Shaffer wrote. "The Ravens lined up in nickel personnel on 60% of their snaps last season, according to TruMedia, and dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 16.6% of their snaps. After trading for inside linebacker Roquan Smith before Week 9, the Ravens leaned even more on their nickel looks, deploying five defensive backs 70.8% of the time."
Along with the need, Shaffer notes how Branch would fit perfectly in the Ravens' system.
"Over each of Branch's three years at Alabama, he played at least 65.9% of his defensive snaps in the slot. Last season, he lined up there on 74.1% of his snaps and in the box on another 17.7%," Shaffer wrote. "That put Branch in the middle of everything for the Crimson Tide's defense, which finished No. 5 nationally in ESPN’s efficiency rankings."
Shaffer also gives Branch high praise as a player, too.
"Branch's game is polished, physical, instinctive. He did everything well last season," Shaffer wrote. "… He filled gaps at the line of scrimmage as a run defender. He blitzed from the slot and from 10 yards off the ball. He covered tight ends in man-to-man looks and wide receivers split out wide as a zone defender. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Branch didn't look much like the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Hamilton. But he certainly played like him."
ESPN’s Matt Bowen is another pundit commending Branch's play, saying he boasts the best coverage instincts in this year's class.
"A multidimensional defensive back with coverage skills and safety range, Branch has the football awareness to play faster than his timed speed (4.58). He's a high-level defensive processor who played in a pro scheme at Alabama," Bowen wrote. "Branch can key and diagnose quickly as a coverage defender, and he has the traits to squeeze receivers or undercut the ball."
Though back-to-back safeties in Round 1 of the past two drafts would appear striking, it's clear Branch plays more than the safety title suggests. And after a season of Kyle Hamilton proving the value a versatile safety can bring, Branch could be a Raven if the board falls in both sides' favor.
Peter King Mocks Turnover-Savvy Cornerback to Ravens at No. 22
Each Monday before the draft, NBC Sports’ Peter King delivers his single mock draft of the offseason; this year, King mocked Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes to Baltimore at No. 22.
"I've thought receiver for the last month, even after Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the Ravens. But Forbes is the imperfect candidate in a wholly imperfect draft, and I think he's going in the first round," King wrote. "There is so much to like with the 6-0 ¾, 168-pound corner, the most productive defensive back in this draft. The only thing not to like is his rail-thin physique. But how about missing one of 37 college games with injury, returning six interceptions for touchdowns (an NCAA record), and having 30 interceptions in his past six seasons (16 in high school, 14 in college)? You want this man on your team. The Ravens would figure out how to maximize his instinctive play."
A No. 2 cornerback with a knack for interceptions makes a great deal of sense for the Ravens. They've had one the past few seasons in Marcus Peters, who's generated eight interceptions and six forced fumbles since being traded for midway through 2019. Forbes offers the same with a clean bill of health and youth to boot.
Ravens Are a 'Best Fit' for ECU Running Back Keaton Mitchell
With consideration for the future, The Draft Network’s Jack McKessy sees the Ravens as a perfect fit for East Carolina running back Keaton Mitchell.
"Both of the Ravens' top two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, are set to become free agents after the 2023 season. They also both tore their ACLs in 2021," McKessy wrote. "… If Baltimore wants to get a bit younger at the position and bring in an explosive, speedy guy later in the draft, Mitchell is an excellent fit. The ECU product also brings more to the position as a pass-catcher than Dobbins, Edwards, and Justice Hill."
McKessy brings a good point on pass-catching as of late, as Dobbins hasn't caught many during his NFL career. However, Dobbins entered the NFL with more receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than Mitchell.
- CBS Sports' Cody Benjamin listed the top five all-time picks at every first-round slot, where you'll find numerous Ravens and a certain former Ravens general manager.