New general manager Eric DeCosta has remodeled the reigning AFC North champion Ravens with bold decisions since the 2019 league year began. After inheriting a roster with more coveted unrestricted free agents than available salary cap space, he chose to supplement a talented group of defensive backs with elite safety Earl Thomas rather than pay C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs or Za’Darius Smith for continuity at linebacker. Baltimore also lost starting receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree, as DeCosta opted to fortify the rushing attack with Nick Boyle and Mark Ingram.
After the first wave of free agency, two positional needs stand out on Baltimore’s updated depth chart. Wide receiver and outside linebacker are both high impact positions without sufficient proven performers currently under contract. Armed with the 22nd pick in the first round, along with a pair of third round and fourth round picks, DeCosta will utilize the 2019 NFL draft in his pursuit of a Super Bowl caliber roster.
First round options:
Legendary former general manager Ozzie Newsome was known for hoarding draft capital, but he would occasionally trade up under the right circumstances. Recent retiree and future Ring of Honor member Haloti Ngata, as well as second-year face of the franchise Lamar Jackson, are notable examples. The upcoming draft might present DeCosta with a prime opportunity to trade up for a premier prospect.
Pass rushers are the strength of the 2019 class. Nick Bosa and Josh Allen will likely come off the board within the first few picks. Three more highly regarded edge defenders could be in striking distance for the Ravens. Quick-twitch speed rushers Montez Sweat and Brian Burns or powerful technician Clelin Ferrell would be welcome additions to the pass defense.
Due to improvements in scouting, bluechip prospects rarely slide on draft day, Derwin James notwithstanding. And pass rushers are in high demand across the league, leaving few surefire early contributors available after the first round.
Trading up into the late teens of the first round would probably cost the Ravens a third round pick and therefore, the ability to add depth to a secondary need. However, that loss could be outweighed by the benefit of adding a foundational player at a premium position. Moving up for a bluechip outside linebacker is a logical possibility.
The NFL is now a passing league, but the passing game is still largely won in the trenches. The Ravens offensive line was exposed in the playoff loss to the Chargers, adding competition on the interior would immediately elevate the ceiling of the team. The future of the defensive line is uncertain with Michael Pierce and Willie Henry slated to become unrestricted free agents next offseason. And perhaps an inside linebacker will be the best player available at #22.
Ray Lewis, Ben Grubbs, Michael Oher and C.J. Mosley exemplify the success Baltimore has had when they select line-of-scrimmage focused players in the second half of the first round. DeCosta may be in position to chose a Pro Bowl caliber prospect with the natural first round pick.
The early twenties should be the sweet spot for plug-and-play interior blockers, Baltimore might be able to pick their favorite between centers Erik McCoy and Garrett Bradbury or projected guards Cody Ford and Dalton Risner. #22 could also be the place to catch athletic inside linebacker Devin Bush or a falling defensive lineman that excels when rushing the passer.
Standing pat to select a ‘solid double’ prospect who provides long term stability in the trenches is often a winning strategy. High quality offensive lineman remain valuable and scarce, while adding a bonafide pocket collapser to the defensive line rotation would certainly help compensate for a potential weakness at outside linebacker.
DeCosta needs to find approximately five new starters combined through the second wave of free agency, the draft and development of returning backups. Stockpiling more rookies would flesh out the depth chart. And the Ravens have unearthed many middle round gems, Brandon Williams, Tavon Young, Matthew Judon and Orlando Brown Jr. are a recent sampling.
The flip side is that the Ravens have often not landed enough difference makers when they trade out of the first round, specifically 2010 and 2012. Furthermore, after a twelve man draft class last season and the addition of numerous promising undrafted rookies over the last several years, roster space is at a premium. There are roughly six roster spots currently available for rookies to claim before injuries strike and players are released. DeCosta already owns seven picks in the third round or later.
The ideal position to target in a trade down scenario is wide receiver. The 2019 crop does not feature any elite receivers, yet does boast excellent depth. Marquise Brown, A.J. Brown, N’Keal Harry, Deebo Samuel, Hakeem Butler, Riley Ridley, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Parris Campbell, Kelvin Harmon, Terry McLaurin and other fine wideouts could be available on Day 2.
Hypothetically, the Ravens could bolster the guard or center position, double-dip at wideout and add a developmental pass rusher before the end of the third round if they find a viable trade down partner. DeCosta can field a well-rounded, relatively complete roster in his first season by maneuvering the draft with trades that maximize value.