Lacking sizzle, Ravens get creative to address pressing needs in draft

April 28, 2012 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Trying to assess the Ravens’ 2012 NFL Draft the weekend it takes place is like a movie critic writing a review based on a trailer.

It’s no better than an educated guess, with no one really knowing what the future holds for the eight college players selected by Baltimore in the final weekend of April. But one thing appeared certain based on the expressions and comments of general manager  Ozzie Newsome and director of player personnel Eric DeCosta at the post-draft press conference.

The Ravens’ brass was frustrated at times and really had to work to land their players this weekend. There weren’t many high-profile names, but the front office did what they needed to do to try to address their most pressing concerns entering the 2012 season.

“I think we probably had to manufacture some runs this year,” DeCosta said. “We had some players that we liked and they got picked, and we had to get creative quickly on the fly. I thought the trade opportunity in the first round was fantastic. We were prepared.”

The stretch to which DeCosta was referring likely began after offensive tackle Riley Reiff was selected by Detroit with the 23rd pick. Stanford guard David DeCastro, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Illinois pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, and Wisconsin center Kevin Zeitler came off the board in that order following Reiff, and all were players the Ravens would have strongly considered with the 29th pick.

It’s hard to argue with the end result of the Ravens trading back to the 35th pick and selecting Alabama linebacker-defensive end Courtney Upshaw, who provides a legitimate pass-rush threat to complement All-Pro linebacker on the opposite edge. His underwhelming workout numbers caused Upshaw to slip into the second round, but his pedigree playing for an SEC defensive powerhouse makes him a good bet to become another force in the Baltimore defense — even if not overnight.

“He is a really explosive player and heavy-handed,” director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. “He plays hard and he is versatile. He has played with his hand down and up, so he can stand up on two feet and play and then get down and play in the sub packages as a rusher.”

The Ravens’ other two Day Two selections, Iowa State offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele and Temple running back Bernard Pierce, look like solid additions. More will be initially expected of Osemele, who will be asked to provide serious competition against second-year lineman Jah Reid for the Ravens’ vacant left guard spot. Pierce’s addition not only fills the void left behind by the retiring backup Ricky Williams but provides an insurance policy should Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice hold out during training camp with contract talks moving at a snail’s pace.

But after the Ravens’ first three selections, the projections become far trickier as Newsome and the front office used their next three selections on FCS players with plenty of upside but many question marks as well.

The organization envisions Gino Gradkowski of Delaware as its center of the future, but there’s always the doubt over how players from the FCS level will adjust to the size and speed of the NFL, a dramatic jump for even the top players competing in BCS conferences.

Safety Christian Thompson of South Carolina State and Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson will add depth to the secondary but mostly be counted upon to fill special-teams roles vacated by departing veterans such as Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. The Ravens hope Jackson can assume the punt return duties so No. 1 cornerback Lardarius Webb will not have to be exposed to the role as he was last season.

The Ravens are banking on their recent success of drafting FCS players such as quarterback Joe Flacco and Webb to strike again in 2012.

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