Assessing the Ravens’ 2014 draft now is akin to judging a gift based solely on its wrapping paper.
Only time will tell how many of their nine selections will pay dividends in 2014 and beyond. Even assistant general manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged recently that the evaluation process is as much art as it is science — and luck — with a number of variables ranging from talent and intelligence to health and work ethic determining how successful a player will be.
But the initial reaction to what the Ravens accomplished over the weekend and how it specifically relates to the 2014 season? Underwhelming and redundant.
It has little to do with questioning the quality of players they selected as much as it felt like a repeat of the 2013 draft with an overwhelming emphasis on defense — at the same positions — for a second consecutive year. After selecting a safety (Matt Elam), an inside linebacker (Arthur Brown), and a defensive tackle (Brandon Williams) with their first three picks last year, general manager Ozzie Newsome grabbed an inside linebacker (C.J. Mosley), a defensive tackle (Timmy Jernigan), and another safety (Terrence Brooks) with his first three selections over the weekend.
“You never know what kind of shape the draft is going to take,” DeCosta said Saturday evening. “We go into it blind, and this just ended up being really a draft about substance. We got guys that we think are going to be here for a long time and are going to help us win games. They’re guys in the fourth quarter that should be big-time players for us over time.”
It would be unfair to strongly doubt the talents of Mosley or Jernigan — two players viewed as top 20 talents by more than a few draft pundits — or the potential of Brooks to become defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ starting free safety as early as this coming season. But it is reasonable to question what the selections of Mosley and Jernigan mean for Brown and Williams, two players many expected to step into starting roles this season.
Of course, the Ravens would privately tell you they’ve found the eventual successors for veterans Daryl Smith, Haloti Ngata, and even Chris Canty after grabbing 5-technique defensive end Brent Urban with their first choice on Day 3 of the draft. But that doesn’t sound like dramatic improvement for this season as the Ravens try to bounce back from an 8-8 record and the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.
While no one would confuse the league’s 12th-ranked defense with the 2000 Ravens a year ago, it was the offense that was the biggest culprit that needed major reconstructive surgery this offseason.
It’s true that the Ravens have already worked to address the league’s 29th-ranked offense with the hiring of new coordinator Gary Kubiak, the free-agent additions of 35-year-old receiver Steve Smith and 31-year-old tight end Owen Daniels, and the trade for Tampa Bay center Jeremy Zuttah, but the need for a right tackle and the desire for another impact pass-catcher virtually went untouched this weekend. Yes, the Ravens will always take the best talent available, but the fact that they’ve taken only one offensive player in the first three rounds in the last two years — out of a total of seven choices — is concerning for that side of the football.
Third-round tight end Crockett Gillmore has encouraging upside, but many consider him more of a developmental prospect than someone ready to contribute this year behind Dennis Pitta and Daniels. And while the organization thinks fourth-round running back Lorenzo Taliaferro could be one of the steals of the entire draft, the 230-pound back will need to prove his accomplishments at FCS school Coastal Carolina will translate to the next level.
Are those additions enough to not just improve but dramatically improve what was an abysmal offense a year ago?
“We’re all laughing because the whole board was stacked toward the offense,” said Newsome at the conclusion of the third round. “But Eric has made the comment several times that we’re being contrary — everybody else in this league is drafting offensive players and we’ve been drafting defensive players. But it was stacked more toward the offensive side, but the way it fell for us, it’s been the defensive players.”
Truth be told, the Ravens are higher on second-year linemen Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen than most assume as the former is currently projected to be the starting right tackle with the season just under four months away. But considering the albatross that was the offensive line for a franchise-worst running game a year ago, Penn State guard John Urschel being the lone lineman selected by Newsome — in the fifth round — understandably raises eyebrows.
And even after their other defensive additions, the Ravens’ decision not to draft a cornerback after the free-agent departure of Corey Graham will also put more pressure on Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson as they compete for the No. 3 corner spot.
That’s plenty of dependence on former late-round draft picks who’ve made little impact in their time with the Ravens.
“We need to give these young guys a chance,” Newsome said. “I think guys should fail on the field, so we’re going to give these guys the opportunity to fail on the field. That way we know whether they can [play] or not. But we feel real good about them. And the other aspect of that, bringing in a new set of coaches, and they’re getting a chance to put their eyes on them, and they feel good about the young guys that we drafted last year.”
That message sounds contradictory to how some now view the 2013 selections of Brown and Williams after Mosley and Jernigan were picked in this year’s draft. There’s no shame in acknowledging Mosley and Jernigan as superior prospects on their board, but it’s only natural to wonder if the Ravens feel they whiffed on last year’s class more than they lead on.
Make no mistake, the draft should always be about the long run, but that doesn’t prohibit a team from immediately improving its prospects for this season, which leaves this weekend with questions still unanswered.
The truth is the Ravens won a Super Bowl based largely on offense two years ago but have been more committed to improving the defensive side of the ball ever since. And though the defensive-minded Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in February, the Ravens’ tireless dedication to defense doesn’t appear to mesh with what the league has become as DeCosta even pointed out over the weekend.
“We’ve added a nice influx of young defensive talent,” DeCosta said. “We’ve always been known as a team that has prided itself on defense. This is a blue-collar community, and I think they’re going to enjoy watching these guys play.”
Maybe so, but fans will also continue to hold their breath about the offense until the Ravens prove otherwise.