In summing up the phenomenon that has become the NFL Draft over the years, former Ravens coach Brian Billick’s introductory mantra for teams drafting a quarterback is more than fitting in describing the entire event.
Nobody knows anything.
Of course, the phrase is hyperbole when considering the individuals — such as the ones residing at 1 Winning Drive in Owings Mills — who have proven time and time again they mostly know what they’re doing. Still, other organizations over the years — the franchise down the road in Landover comes to mind — have either used their picks as blind shots at a dartboard or, even worse, sold them away for deteriorating veteran pieces for the short term that often leave their franchises in football purgatory.
While everyone hopes to discover the winning Powerball ticket, there is just as much anxiety about uncovering the kind of skunk that can get the head coach, general manager, and scouting department fired. After four months of mock drafts, 40 times, pro days, and the assembling of draft boards, we’ll finally get our first look at the hand each of the 32 teams is holding this weekend.
And, even then, the same will hold true for everyone after the 253rd pick is turned in Saturday evening: we won’t really know for a few more years.
For the Ravens, we all know the philosophy and can recite it by heart. It’s all about the “best player available” and staying true to their draft board. However, they arguably have their most glaring need — the left guard position — since drafting Joe Flacco as their badly-needed franchise quarterback in 2008.
Whether you believe second-year tackle Jah Reid can successfully make the transition to left guard or not, it doesn’t take a fortune-teller to predict loud concern among fans should the Ravens walk away without an interior lineman in the first couple rounds of the draft. Even if that scenario plays out, a look at recent history reminds us how essential it is to allow the results to play out.
In 2008, the second-round selection of Rutgers running back Ray Rice appeared curious after the Ravens had just forked over multiple draft picks and a hefty contract to Willis McGahee the year before. Of course, Rice soon became a Pro Bowl running back while McGahee drifted to a backup role before ultimately being shown the door last year.
And with the benefit of hindsight and the surprising emergence of Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams last season, would the Ravens have still selected cornerback Jimmy Smith with the 27th overall pick in 2011 or perhaps traded out of the spot to address another area?
Could the Ravens pass on selecting a guard and watch Reid blossom into an above-average guard?
You never know what the future holds, making it even more critical to choose the player you envision to be the best over the next four or five years and not just one who can help immediately in 2012.
The consensus choice among experts’ mock drafts is Wisconsin center Peter Konz, who makes perfect sense on paper because of the perceived ability of Konz to shift over to left guard for a season before taking over for veteran Matt Birk, whose three-year contract is essentially structured to be a one-year deal. Konz would certainly address the Ravens’ most immediate need, but will he ultimately be the best player available when thinking about the next four or five seasons?
The Ravens have lacked a tall, impact receiver since the early years of the franchise, making it difficult to pass on a raw talent with major upside such as Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill at the end of the first round. As WNST.net’s Glenn Clark pointed out, there is value at wide receiver in the second and third rounds, but does make you turn away from Hill and toward another position, even if you’re confident he becomes a premier receiver over the next five years?
Other than perhaps quarterback and cornerback, the Ravens could stand to benefit from adding premium talent at any position. In the unlikely scenario that a left tackle prospect such as Riley Reiff of Iowa or Stanford’s Jonathan Martin becomes available — and assuming the Ravens’ brass grade out the given player as favorably as the experts do — Baltimore shouldn’t think twice about drafting its left tackle of the future, even if it means he sits on the bench for a year behind Bryant McKinnie and is unable to spend a cameo season at guard. The same holds true if Alabama’s Mark Barron slides down the draft board, even though the Ravens appear set at safety this season with Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard under contract.
The NFL Draft is about building franchises for the long haul, not plugging holes for that coming fall. You weigh the merits of perceived “safer” picks such as Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler who might have a lower ceiling against the potential rewards of drafting an upside player like Hill who possesses a higher bust rate.
If you’re confident that safe pick will blossom into a Pro Bowl player, you take him like the Ravens did with Ben Grubbs in 2007. But there are other times where rolling the dice — within reason — is the best move if you’ve done your homework and are confident in your coaching staff and the young man in which you’re investing.
The good news is Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, and Joe Hortiz know these lessons as well as any talent evaluators in the league.
Whether their first-round selection falls in line with an immediate need such as guard or wide receiver or is more of a long-term consideration like left tackle, inside linebacker, or safety, the Ravens are looking beyond next season when they turn in their card on Thursday night. It’s not just about 2012 and trying to move the Ravens one step further than they went last year; it’s finding the player who will put them in the best position to win over the next five years.
You never truly know whether it’s going to work out or not, but keeping the big picture in focus will keep you pointed in the right direction.
It’s not always what the fans want and it may leave them scratching their heads and groaning about the results on draft day, but you’re ultimately making the choice based on the cheers you expect to hear over the next several years.