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With 9 picks in first 4 rounds of 2022 NFL draft, ‘great opportunity’ awaits Ravens

Baltimore Sun (TNS)
FILE - Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. DeCosta feels the Ravens have generally been pretty conservative in the draft when it comes to injuries. That's a relevant issue after a decimated Baltimore team dropped six straight at the end of last season to miss the playoffs. The Ravens will certainly hope for better luck in 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

The Baltimore Ravens went into each of the last two seasons believing they belonged on a shortlist of true Super Bowl contenders.

With Lamar Jackson at quarterback and former All-Pros at other premium positions such as cornerback and left tackle, they had the luxury of viewing the draft as an accessory package for their Cadillac.

That’s no longer the case in 2022 as they try to pick up the pieces from an 8-9 season in which they lost their last six games to dive-bomb out of the AFC playoff race. They still have Jackson and those other former All-Pros.

Oddsmakers still treat them as a contender, albeit not a top-tier one. But they’re trying to climb back up the mountain with a roster that needs patching and fortifying at several key positions, from cornerback to offensive tackle to edge rusher.

General manager Eric DeCosta won’t just be looking for useful parts when the 2022 NFL draft — his fourth as the Ravens’ top football decision-maker — begins Thursday night. He needs core starters for a defense that fell to last in the league against the pass. And protectors for Jackson, who took far too many sacks last season.

Is this the team’s most important draft since 2018, when the Ravens traded into the last spot of the first round to select Jackson and set up a transition from the Joe Flacco era? No one with the team has said so explicitly, but there is a feeling that with nine picks in the first four rounds, DeCosta could go a long way toward fixing what ails the roster.

It’s a position that suits a general manager who learned to anticipate the draft like Christmas morning under his predecessor and mentor, Ozzie Newsome. As long as he’s running the show, it will “always be the foundation” of how the Ravens build, and reload, their team.

“We feel very good about where we’re situated right now,” DeCosta said earlier this month. “It’s a great opportunity for the club.”

Outside analysts also spoke of the Ravens’ position more in terms of opportunity than desperation. They suggested few front offices are better equipped to capitalize on a deluge of middle-round picks.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, noted that only five times in the last decade have teams drafted multiple Pro Bowl players in the third and fourth rounds of the same draft. The Ravens, with tight end Mark Andrews and tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in 2018 and nose tackle Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk in 2013, accounted for two of the five examples Jeremiah’s researchers unearthed.

“So they’re very confident about what they can accomplish in that part of the draft,” he said.

DeCosta facing some criticism: Drafting was a part of the job DeCosta did not have to grow accustomed to after his promotion in 2019. He had sat at Newsome’s right hand and served as his chief counsel on so many stellar picks, along with some inevitable stinkers. But with three drafts under his general manager’s belt, he has started to face some criticism from fans, who see his track record as mixed at best.

Linebacker Odafe Oweh was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens last year. He displayed star potential during his first season.

The 2019 class was particularly rough; of the eight players DeCosta selected, only first-round pick Marquise Brown is projected to start for the Ravens in 2022 (though fourth-round pick Ben Powers will compete for snaps at left guard). The 2020 class yielded more contributors, but first-round pick Patrick Queen is still searching for week-to-week consistency, and second-round pick J.K. Dobbins is trying to bounce back from a torn ACL. The 2021 group got off to a promising start, with first-round picks Rashod Bateman and Odafe Oweh flashing star potential as rookies.

Positions of need: DeCosta has spoken openly about his team’s needs for next-generation help at cornerback, offensive tackle, defensive line and edge rusher. Given how thin the Ravens are at key positions on defense, they cannot afford to come up empty in the third and fourth rounds. Even owner Steve Bisciotti alluded to their needs in a rare session with reporters last month, saying “it could be an all-defensive draft for all I know.”

At the same time, DeCosta is a realist who views the draft as a volume game rather than a precision exercise. Though he’d like to think all five of his fourth-round picks will help the Ravens immediately, he knows the odds are against it. He and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz do not have to be prefect in their assessments to make significant improvements to the roster. Their pile of third- and fourth-round picks will afford them room for a few misses and give them flexibility to move up for specific players if they choose.

“I think we do have a lot of flexibility, which is something that we covet — having the chance to move up and down,” DeCosta said. “Sometimes, you get into a situation, we see it with other teams, where they want to do a trade with us and they want to maneuver, but they don’t have the picks to do it. … So, having picks in the first, second, third and fourth round, and then also a sixth-round pick, I think, gives us the flexibility to do whatever we want to do.”

Trading down? ESPN analyst Todd McShay said he could see the Ravens trading down to accumulate even more total picks.

“They’ve always done a good job with their picks and knowing when to move around,” he said. “It wouldn’t shock me at all with that 14th pick if they end up moving back. That’s an area where some teams are, I would guess, moving up to try and get a wide receiver. … Eric DeCosta and that Ravens organization, for years, have done a great job of taking advantage of other teams when they’re — I don’t want to say desperate — but they’re eager to move up for a guy.”

The problem, other analysts said, is that with so few teams enamored of the quarterback prospects in this class, there aren’t many looking to trade up. They’d rather hold multiple picks in the 20-50 range.

“You talk to other GMs around the league, I think that’s kind of actually the target area, is kind of that late first, early second,” Jeremiah said. “It’s kind of the sweet spot of this draft.”

More volume than value: This is a year when few analysts seem thrilled with the talent at the top of the draft but most see a greater volume of draftable players because the pandemic caused so many prospects spent an extra year in college.

Jeremiah, for example, said he usually runs out of players he wants to study around the 350 or 360 mark. This year, he easily found 400 that might be worthy of roster spots.

DeCosta and Hortiz have made similar comments about the depth of their board.

“I think COVID, the extra year the players had, it allows the board to kind of beef up toward the bottom, Day 3 of the draft,” Hortiz said. “So, I’d say, when you look at the volume of players on our board compared to previous boards, it’s probably a little bit higher.”

It’s good news for a team that needs immediate contributors at every level of its defense, not to mention insurance policies at offensive tackle, running back and perhaps center or tight end.