OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When you draft two future Hall of Fame players with the first two picks in franchise history, the standard is going to be impossible to live up to.
But that didn’t stop general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens from coming very close for the better part of the next decade. After Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in that franchise-defining 1996 draft came Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed (another future Hall of Famer), Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ben Grubbs in first rounds over the next 11 years, all of them Pro Bowl selections.
Sure, there were a couple misses along the way, but you simply expected the Ravens to find a Pro Bowl player in the first round of the draft every year. Those emphatic early hits began to dissipate, however, and Baltimore has seen just one first-round pick — C.J. Mosley in 2014 — make the Pro Bowl since 2008.
The previous home runs and triples have been replaced by more singles and doubles — and a few more strikeouts — in recent years, which are still better than other teams in the NFL, but that decline came into focus this past year when a lack of playmakers and a rash of injuries led to a 5-11 season.
“If you look at [recent] drafts compared to ’96 to 2004, I would say that they didn’t measure up to those drafts,” Newsome said. “From ’96 to 2004, we drafted three Hall of Famers, but I will also say that during that time early on when you’re picking in the top 10 of the draft, you have a chance to be a lot more successful than it is when you’re picking anywhere from 20 to 32, which [are] the positions that we’ve been in.
“But I would say it was not up to my standards.”
Newsome’s point is fair as the Ravens have been a victim of their own success in that way after making the postseason 10 times in the last 16 years. They haven’t picked in even the first half of the first round in a decade and the sixth overall pick in this month’s draft will be the organization’s earliest since 2000.
As much as the Ravens were blessed to be able to land Hall of Fame talent when they took Ray Lewis 26th overall in 1996 and Reed 24th in 2002, the final 10 picks of the first round and the early second round typically aren’t littered with All-Pro talent everywhere you look. As if Lewis and Reed weren’t enough, the Ravens also found future Pro Bowl selections in Heap and Grubbs very late in the first round, but such success shouldn’t fool anyone into assuming you should find a Pro Bowl player that late every single year.
Yes, there have been some ugly first- and second-round picks in recent drafts as Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, Matt Elam, and Arthur Brown immediately come to mind, but other maligned choices such as Michael Oher and Courtney Upshaw were still more positive than not — even if they weren’t Pro Bowl players.
The drafts haven’t been all bad as Pernell McPhee, Brandon Williams, Crockett Gillmore, and Rick Wagner have been impressive middle-round finds over the last five years, but they just need to be better, especially in the early rounds. Recent drafts have been solid — for the most part — but rarely special.
“Have we drafted a ton of Pro Bowlers? No, we haven’t, but I’m proud of the players we’ve drafted,” said assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who cited the big free-agent money other teams have spent on Ravens picks such as McPhee, Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones, and Kelechi Osemele in the last few offseasons. “I think we’ll get back to being a really good team soon. I’m not going to stress out about it.
“Can we do better in certain instances? Of course we can. You’re dealing with human emotion people, but I think our scouts and coaches have done a really good job. I think we’ll get back to prominence.”
If serious contention is in the cards for 2016, the Ravens need to hit a couple long balls and triples, not just with the sixth overall pick but with their six other selections in the top 134 spots. A successful draft isn’t only about the first round as Newsome has shown in finding Pro Bowl-caliber players and starters in the middle and late rounds over the years.
Expecting the Ravens to find their next future Hall of Famer later this month would be unfair, but they do need to find the next pillar around which to build. If it isn’t a Ray Lewis, Ogden, or Reed, drafting the next Suggs, Ngata, or Jamal Lewis is a reasonable expectation when picking so early.
DeCosta acknowledged Tuesday that the money in Vegas would be on the Ravens taking a defensive player with the sixth pick as there are five or six “elite” ones in his mind, but the executive also said there are three or four offensive players who might be the best fit depending on how the first five picks play out in a few weeks.
Whether it’s a player like Jalen Ramsey of Florida State unexpectedly falling into their laps or a regular mock-draft target such as Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, UCLA’s Myles Jack, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley or even another name being discussed less frequently such as running back Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the Ravens must come away with a special talent.
They need to find the next player who will one day be in the Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium.
That would go a long way in not only helping them bounce back from a 5-11 season, but such a player would be a good step in preventing the Ravens from being back in this position for another 16 years.