If there is a blemish on the Ravens' impressive draft record, it's at the wide receiver position.
The Ravens have drafted a wide receiver every year since the team's inception except for four – 21 receivers in all. They've drafted them in the early rounds, middle rounds and late rounds.
It's a judgement call to say which picks "panned out," but it's clear predicting wide receiver success has been tricky. Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta admitted last week to "mistakes."
So what makes it so difficult?
"I've thought a lot about that over the years because we've had some struggles at that position," DeCosta said.
First, here's a quick rundown of the receivers the Ravens have drafted over the years. Baltimore has drafted a wide receiver in the first round just twice, and not since 2005.
- 1996, Round 5: Jermaine Lewis, Maryland
- 1996, Round 6: James Roe, Norfolk State
- 1998, Round 2: Patrick Johnson, Oregon
- 1999, Round 3: Brandon Stokley, Louisiana-Lafayette
- 2000, Round 1: Travis Taylor, Florida
- 2002, Round 4: Ron Johnson, Minnesota
- 2002, Round 6: Javin Hunter, Notre Dame
- 2004, Round 3: Devard Darling, Washington State
- 2004, Round 6: Clarence Moore, Northern Arizona
- 2004, Round 7: Derek Abney, Kentucky
- 2005, Round 1: Mark Clayton, Oklahoma
- 2006, Round 4: Demetrius Williams, Oregon
- 2007, Round 3: Yamon Figurs, Kansas State
- 2008, Round 4: Marcus Smith, New Mexico
- 2008, Round 7: Justin Harper, Virginia Tech
- 2010, Round 5: David Reed, Utah
- 2011, Round 2: Torrey Smith, Maryland
- 2011, Round 4: Tandon Doss, Indiana
- 2012, Round 6: Tommy Streeter, Miami
- 2013, Round 7: Aaron Mellette, Elon
- 2014, Round 7: Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest
"We as a group, we try to learn from all of our mistakes," Newsome said. "How can we get better? What were we not looking at that led us to make that decision? And hopefully, it will make a better decision for us going forward."
In previous years, the case could be made that it was impossible for the Ravens to find the "elite" wide receiver Baltimore fans have been clamoring for in the draft. The top targets were well gone before the Ravens were on the clock near the end of the first round.
But that's changing. With the proliferation of pass-heavy offenses in college football, wide receivers are coming out far more prepared than in previous years.
Last season's draft class was spectacular. Mike Evans (Buccaneers), Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants) and Kelvin Benjamin (Panthers) all went in the first round and all put up more than 1,000 receiving yards. Benjamin went at No. 28, 11 picks after the Ravens selected linebacker C.J. Mosley.
"It seems like receivers in general have been contributing faster over the last couple years," DeCosta said. "Last year's receiver class was outstanding."
The Ravens don't see this year's wide receiver class on quite the same level – especially at the very top – but it's "close." Ravens Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz indicated that there may be more possible first-round receivers than last year.
"It's comparable," Hortiz said. "I don't know if you're going to get quite the same impact, but there's a lot of talent at the top like there was last year, and it trickles down all the way through the draft."
The reason why there are more and better wide receivers in the draft is because the college game is changing.
The spread formation has taken over, giving receivers more opportunities. With more opportunities comes more practice and improvement. It also helps them put up bigger stats and make more splash plays.
"When I first got involved in scouting, you could probably go two or three games and the guy … I only caught 25 balls as a senior in college," said Newsome, an NFL Hall of Famer.
"But that game is changing, because the college game has changed. Receivers are coming into the league a little bit better prepared, and I think that will just help us do better."
DeCosta also indicated that the Ravens are putting more weight into a college player's quarterback. It's difficult for a premier wide receiver to show his talents without a good quarterback. Vice versa, a very good quarterback can make a lesser receiver look good.
Baltimore has invested a lot of time in evaluating wide receivers this season, as with any other. They are expected to take* *advantage of the stocked market considering the loss of Torrey Smith in free agency and age of Steve Smith Sr. The Ravens also released speedy wide receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.
Hortiz said the Ravens aren't specifically looking for a speed merchant wide receiver, however. Baltimore's keeping all options open.
"You're looking for a playmaking wide receiver more importantly – a guy that can score touchdowns, get open, make clutch, critical catches," Hortiz said. "Speed helps, obviously, but if we get a speed deficient wideout who can score the game-winner against Pittsburgh, that's all we care about. He doesn't have to run a 4.3 as long as he runs for six [points]."
So have the Ravens found the right receiver prospects this year?
"I'm confident," DeCosta said. "I think we do great a* *job of evaluating players. I think we know what we want. We've made our share of mistakes, but I think we're ready to move forward and nail some guys."