Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are." Halfway through the season, the record says the Ravens are not very good. Injuries have exposed the fact that they lack depth at a number of key positions including cornerback, safety, pass rusher, wide receiver and left tackle. A disturbing number of starters-- Kamar Aiken, Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil, Justin Forsett, Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Eugene Monroe, Darryl Smith, Steve Smith and Jeremy Zuttah-- began their careers with other teams. Many of them came to the Ravens as castoffs. The cupboard is now bare of talent, and the reason for this is surprising. Good teams find talent in the later rounds of the NFL draft and an occasional undrafted free agent gem, but general managers earn their pay with their selections in the draft's first four rounds. Although the Ravens used to be one of the best teams in the league at finding talent in the first four rounds, the ugly truth is that for a number of years, the Raven have not drafted well.
During the Brian Billick era, 1999-2007, the Ravens hit on 71% of their picks in the first four rounds (twenty-five of thirty-five), and a number of their first round picks became stars. Athough it is too soon to assess the 2014 and 2015 drafts, in the first six years of the John Harbaugh era, 2008-2013, the Ravens only hit on 39% of their picks in the first four rounds (eleven of twenty-eight), and Joe Flacco is their only first round playmaker. Where the Ravens have fallen down completely is in finding talent in the third and fourth rounds. Between 2008 and 2013, the Ravens had sixteen third and fourth round picks. They hit on four of them: Kyle Juszczyk, Dennis Pitta, Ladarius Webb, and Brandon Williams. Williams is a budding star, but Pitta and Webb have had productive careers derailed by injuries, and Juszczyk is a fullback which is a position very few teams consider worthy of a fourth round pick. Their other twelve picks included such names as Oniel Cousins, Ed Dickson, Tandon Doss, Tavares Gooden, Gino Gradkowski, David Hale, Bernard Pierce, Jah Reid, John Simon, Marcus Smith, Christian Thompson and Tom Zbikowski. Although Ed Dickson and Bernard Pierce got on the field from time to time, ultimately all twelve picks were wasted.
When injury strikes and a team has misfired on its high draft picks, "next man up" is a recipe for disaster if the next man up is a cornerback who can't cover, an outside linebacker who can't pressure the quarterback, or a wide receiver who can't separate. A success rate of twenty-five percent in the third and fourth rounds simply isn't good enough for long-term success. A player selected in the first four rounds who can't be made serviceable by coaching occupies a valuable roster spot, frequently for years. Then the team either has to pay a free agent or double down and expend another draft pick to fill the hole. It is no coincidence that the Ravens drafted Terrance Brooks and C.J. Mosley one year after Matt Elam and Arthur Brown failed to measure up. Over the years, Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens' front office have been very good at bringing in inexpensive veterans to fill holes in the roster, but this year they were short of cap space because of the Ray Rice fiasco. It shows.
Are Ozzie and the front office to blame for the team's inability to draft talent in the third and four rounds? Yes, but also no. The Ravens draft process is a cooperative effort between the coaches, the scouts, and the front office. Brian Billick had outstanding defensive coaches who coached players well and apparently helped select good ones. Coaches of that caliber are extremely difficult to find, but even during the Brian Billick era, the one area where the Ravens have fallen down with distressing consistency is in drafting wide receivers.
Between 1999 and 2013, the Ravens drafted seventeen wide receivers. Some of them got playing time for lack of anyone better to put on the field including first round picks Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton, but the only two of the seventeen who were any good were Brandon Stokely and Torrey Smith. It will be years before we know if injured 2015 first round pick Breshad Perriman was worth a first round pick, but at the moment his stock is not high and the Ravens' past history suggests that he will not be very good.
The Ravens have had success in drafting wide receivers from the University of Maryland. Stefon Diggs was a very good wide receiver on some very bad Terrapin football teams, and I confess that I was dismayed when the Ravens failed to snap him up with one of their compensatory picks at the end of the fourth round of last year's draft. Diggs is now playing extremely well for the Minnesota Vikings, and cornerback Byron Jones, who was selected by Dallas with the pick after Perriman, seems to be doing well for the Cowboys. Hindsight is 20/20, but I have to wonder what the Ravens' record would be if the team had drafted Jones instead of Perriman in the first round and Diggs instead of Trey Walker in the fourth round. The good news is that one really good draft would revitalize the Ravens. The question is when-- and if-- the Ravens will have that one really good draft.