Ravens thoughts on winning vs. draft pick, 2016 opponents, more

December 29, 2015 | Luke Jones

The Ravens took great satisfaction in sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious danger, but the 20-17 win didn’t do any favors to Baltimore’s 2016 draft positioning.

Entering Week 16 holding the third overall pick in the first round of next year’s draft, the Ravens dropped all the way to eighth after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in franchise history. And it only added more fuel to the ongoing debate over whether it’s better for the Ravens to win now or to lose with an eye toward April.

To be clear once again, this isn’t a question of whether the Ravens themselves should be trying to win. The sheer number of injuries they’ve suffered has already cut John Harbaugh’s team off at the knees in the second half of the season, but many players and coaches are still fighting for their jobs and their efforts were rewarded on Sunday by completing the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in team history.

This also isn’t about the pointless debate of what it means to be a “true” fan, a concept that sounds elitist and is impossible to define. It’s perfectly acceptable to root for the instant gratification that the Ravens experienced against the Steelers on Sunday or to be thinking about the future of your favorite team and wanting a larger talent pool from which general manager Ozzie Newsome can choose in every round of this spring’s draft.

Ultimately, fans want to see their team win every Sunday and also win championships, right?

Harbaugh as well as some media and fans have spoken about the value of finishing the season on a high note, but that’s difficult to quantify when you’re considering the patchwork roster currently playing and how many of those players will either be gone or will have diminished roles next season. Winning these final two games would provide a short-term emotional boost, but that doesn’t equate to success in 2016 without some marked upgrades to the roster.

What isn’t as difficult to quantify, however, is how many draft prospects will be unavailable to the Ravens over the course of a seven-round draft should they finish 6-10 as opposed to 5-11 or 4-12. And that’s where the win over Pittsburgh followed by a potential upset at Cincinnati would leave fans with a hollow feeling in the offseason.

Even with potential wins over the Steelers and the Bengals to wrap the season, Baltimore will still be sitting at home watching the playoffs like the rest of us next week.

Good players can be found in every round of the draft if your talent evaluation is sound and you have some luck along the way. You can whiff picking at any spot in the draft, but you are improving the chances of landing better players the earlier you select.

It’s true that a better draft pick won’t guarantee that the Ravens land a future Pro Bowl player, but you won’t convince me that winning games when you’re playing out the string is all that valuable to the future, either. This is the equivalent of September baseball for a losing club, something Orioles manager Buck Showalter always warns can fool you when evaluating players.

The reality lies somewhere in between. It’s perfectly acceptable to be happy with a win over the Steelers, but you can also choose not to be distraught if the Ravens lose to the Bengals to wrap up the season. And I won’t accuse you of not being a “true” fan no matter what.

Brown done?

It was two years ago Tuesday when wide receiver Marlon Brown caught his seventh touchdown of his rookie season in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati.

Despite the Ravens missing the playoffs at 8-8 a year after winning the Super Bowl, the rookie free agent out of Georgia was one of the bright spots of 2013 and caught 49 passes for 524 yards. Since then, however, Brown has made just 38 receptions for 367 yards and no touchdowns in 24 games.

“Marlon is one of my favorite guys, and he works really hard at it, has a great attitude and, to my eyes, is very talented,” Harbaugh said. “But it just hasn’t worked in the last two years like we all expected after his rookie year, especially how Marlon expected to continue to improve. It’s going to be a really important offseason for him, and it’s going to be a critical season for him when he comes back.”

Brown’s back injury that cost him the final six games of 2015 doesn’t mask the disappointing of his last two seasons. And with the 6-foot-5 wideout scheduled to become a restricted free agent this winter, you wonder if he’s played his final game with the Ravens.

It’s remarkable to think that Brown was catching touchdowns for the Ravens two years ago while Kamar Aiken was on the practice squad and to see how different their careers have gone since then.

2016 opponents

Having clinched third place in the AFC North on Sunday, the Ravens officially learned their full slate of opponents for the 2016 season. The schedule itself is typically released in late April.

Below is a look at those opponents:

HOME: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland
AWAY: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New England, New York Jets, Dallas, New York Giants, Jacksonville

It’s too soon to know what the Ravens or any of these opponents will look like from a talent standpoint  — only five of their 13 opponents in 2016 enter Week 17 with a winning record — but the travel schedule will lighten considerably with just one game (Dallas) played outside the Eastern time zone. After the Ravens played four games out west in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, that should be a pleasant change as they try to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

Good shape at guard

It remains to be seen what the Ravens will do at left tackle moving forward, but the last couple weeks make you think that the interior offensive line will be in good shape without Kelechi Osemele.

The organization has long been confident in John Urschel’s ability to play guard, but 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen has improved substantially over the last couple weeks and earned high marks for his blocking against Pittsburgh on Sunday. With starting center Jeremy Zuttah under contract for next season, the Ravens could elect to have Urschel and Jensen compete for the starting left guard spot in training camp.

Even if Osemele is re-signed, he won’t be playing left guard, but the Ravens should feel confident about their options to replace him.