Shortly after the Ravens arrived in Baltimore, the Ravens embarked on perhaps one of their most underrated but important drafts in team history.
The 1996 draft will forever remain its most iconic due to the finding of two inevitable Hall of Famers. The 2008 draft will be remembered for discovering the missing offensive links that had long held back the defensively dominant Ravens. But the 1997 draft may have done more for overall team strength as any to put Baltimore on its Super Bowl run in 2000.
A review of the class reveals a number of valuable contributors:
Peter Boulware, drafted at 1.4, was the Ravens' first of many dominant pass rushing outside linebackers and he was eventually inducted into the Ravens Ring of Honor.
Jamie Sharper (2.34) was an effective three down linebacker next to Lewis and notable for his crushing hits, game-ending pick in the AFC Championship, and interception in Super Bowl XXXV.
Kim Herring (2.58) was a starter for 54 games at safety and gathered an interception in the Super Bowl before becoming a starter for several seasons with the Rams, including their 2001 Super Bowl team. Mike Flynn was an undrafted free agent offensive lineman who played in Baltimore for nearly 10 years.
But perhaps the most impressive pick of all was the one that was eventually allowed to walk and become star on another team. That man was Priest Holmes. And perhaps if not for that, the 2001 season turns out differently.
Priest first saw action in 1998 with an impressive season rushing for 1,000 yards on just 233 attempts, good for 4.3 yards per attempt (Y/A). He scored 7 touchdowns and even chipped in 43 receptions on an otherwise fairly sad passing offense (under Jim Harbaugh no less).
In 1999, Errict Rhett, who had 44 carries in 1998, took over full-time duties while Holmes was relegated to second string. Holmes would greatly outperform Rhett, rushing for 506 yards on 89 attempts, good for a ridiculous 5.7 Y/A. However, he missed half the season for reasons undetermined (likely injury) after week 1, not returning until week 8.
In 2000, the Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis with the fifth overall pick who went on to become the Ravens' primary bellcow. Holmes would play a meaningful second string role, doing significant work in the Ravens' shutout of the Steelers in week 1. He would not play much in the postseason but earned a Super Bowl ring.
After the 2000 season, Holmes left for Kansas City on an affordable five year, $7.5 million deal. Dick Vermeil, fresh off a stint with the great Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, had been looking for a Faulk like player.
They did better than that. From 2001 until 2004, Priest Holmes was the most dominant running back in football.
His first season in Kansas City, Holmes thoroughly crushed the NFL. Faulk and the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams, would go on to play in the Super Bowl, and are rightly remembered for their dominance, and yet he was only the second best running back. Holmes racked up 1,555 yards and 8 touchdowns on 327 carries, a high workload. His DYAR was 75 higher than Faulk, 150 higher than the next running back, and nearly 250 better than the next 7 highest running backs.
By way of comparison, Adrian Peterson in 2012 had a nearly identical season to Holmes, with 458 DYAR, and a similarly huge gap between he and the next nine running backs.
The Ravens meanwhile were attempting to defend their title but lost Jamal Lewis almost immediately upon the start of training camp. Baltimore suffered to generate meaningful offense the rest of the year but still managed to make it to the Divisional Round, where they were defeated rather easily.
To say they missed Holmes all of a sudden would be the ultimate understatement. The 2001 Ravens had been set up with repeating in mind. Their expensive and aging veterans were maintained for another year knowing full well that the bill would come due in 2002. But without Lewis, the offense could not do enough to support the still dominant defense.
While the What-If game is always fun, Holmes' unbelievable dominance in Kansas City offers a compelling case of What-If had Baltimore retained him. Holmes' dominance was hardly a fluke either.
In 2002, he was again the best running back in football, and this time he would put up numbers significantly better than Peterson's 2012, with 497 DYAR, 1,600 yards, and 21 touchdowns. KC was the best offense in the league. This time the nearest running back to him was Clinton Portis, and after that, you have to go awfully far down the production meter to find the next back.
In 2003, Holmes repeated for the third year as the most valuable running back in football with 485 DYAR (again, higher than Peterson's 2012 and Tomlinson's 2006). Even the great LaDainian Tomlinson was far behind him at 365 DYAR in this season. Holmes racked up a preposterous 27 touchdowns (later exceeded by Tomlinson in 2006) and 1,420 yards. The Chiefs were the NFL's best offense yet again. They would go 13-3, but lose to the second best offense Colts in the playoffs, even after Holmes provided 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Jamal Lewis, who himself ran for 2,066 yards in 2003 and had 68 more carries, was "only" the fifth most valuable running back with 292 DYAR, likely owing to his "mere" 15 touchdowns (and 9 fumbles also).
Finally, after three years of dominating the NFL offensive landscape, Holmes began to fade after years of 350 carry seasons, finally retiring in 2007.
The Ravens meanwhile must have looked on this with a bit of wistful regret. Lewis was a fine player for Baltimore, particularly in 2003, and in the grand scheme, allowing Holmes to be a featured back enabled him to reach heights he might not have in a committee. In those days, the NFL built around a bellcow. The pass still dominated but teams hadn't yet figured that out seemingly, nor had they realized that protecting your backs with shared workload helped ensure their longevity.
Still, Holmes' particular run of dominance was so far above the mean we might not see an undrafted free agent do that for a long time. He is rightfully considered one of Newsome's best finds even if he played his best ball with Kansas City. Perhaps for that reason the 1997 draft doesn't get the attention it deserves had he not left but its still true that it might be among Newsome's best.