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PRESTON: Good draft class might catapult Baltimore Ravens into Super Bowl

MIKE PRESTON
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
With the No. 28 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens might be able to land a pass-rushing specialist, such as Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos.

The Baltimore Ravens’ 2017 draft was highly anticipated because the team wanted to rebuild and re-establish its strong tradition of great defense.

The 2020 draft is even more important because it could propel the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

When the Ravens signed defensive ends Calais Campbell and Michael Brockers earlier in the week, they significantly improved their team. It’s still early in the offseason, but the Ravens’ roster is superior than most in the NFL, especially the AFC.

The Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions, are still the team to beat only because of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but the Ravens could be onto something special if they hit on several positions in the draft, which starts April 23.

The Ravens have needs at linebacker and receiver, and must find depth on the offensive line and a kick returner. They have nine picks, including No. 28 overall, as well as two in the second round and two in the third.

Now, if they only hit on a couple...

Busy week: It’s been a busy week for Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta. He traded former first-round pick and tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round selection to the Atlanta Falcons for second- and fifth-round picks.

Hurst, the team’s top pick in 2018, will play well for the Falcons as long as he is a focal point of the offense. He couldn’t supplant fellow tight end Mark Andrews here in Baltimore as quarterback Lamar Jackson’s favorite target, and there were times when Jackson didn’t throw to Hurst when he appeared open.

DeCosta also cut offensive lineman James Hurst, who was suspended for the first four games of the 2020 season after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. His loss could have a major impact if the Ravens suffer an injury early because he could play both guard and tackle. But the Ravens should be able to find versatile offensive linemen in the draft.

Addition of Campbell and Brockers: The Ravens made their best moves with the additions of Campbell and Brockers. The Ravens allowed only an average of 93.4 rushing yards per game last season, but struggled against quality teams like the Chiefs and Tennessee Titans. The problem was that the Ravens only had two playmakers in the front seven: tackle Brandon Williams and outside linebacker Matthew Judon.

With Campbell and Brockers, they match up better. A strong secondary featuring cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and safety Chuck Clark has gotten stronger. Now the Ravens have to find linebackers in the draft.

They had a similar philosophy in 2017, and things didn’t work out as planned. Of the seven players the Ravens drafted, five were on defense, including outside linebackers Tyus Bowser (second round) and Tim Williams (third). The Ravens cut Williams in the early part of last season and Bowser has yet to become a starter or good enough to warrant a lot of playing time.

The Ravens can’t fail now.

Smelling a Super Bowl: This organization should be smelling a Super Bowl appearance. As of Wednesday, the Ravens were only $6 million to $8 million under the salary cap, so they won’t be able to sign a big-name free agent.

But with the No. 28 overall pick, they should be able to draft an inside linebacker such as Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or LSU’s Patrick Queen or a pass-rushing specialist such as Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos or Alabama’s Terrell Lewis.

If not, with multiple picks in the second and third rounds, they could trade up or even trade back if they think this is a deep draft.

Failure not an option: The Ravens have a lot of options, but failure is not one of them.

They have made progress in each of the past two years. They got beat in a wild-card playoff game two years ago and lost to the Titans in the divisional round in 2019. The next step is the conference title game.

But a good draft could catapult the Ravens past that and into the Super Bowl.