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Free Agency vs. NFL Draft: which is more important?

Veterans are proven commodities. Rookies are volatile.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In 2018, Ozzie Newsome performed his swan song. His final performance yielded Lamar Jackson, Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Anthony Averrett, Kenny Young, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, DeShon Elliott, Greg Senat and Zach Sieler.

A true show of mastery by Newsome and his heir, Eric DeCosta. That draft class has provided immediate and long-term payoff.

In their rookie season, Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Bradley Bozeman and Kenny Young saw significant usage en route to a division title. In only two years, the yield has been incredible. Three Pro-Bowlers, including one soon-to-be MVP, between Jackson, Andrews and Brown Jr.

Five players see significant snaps.

Hurst has proven to be a valuable asset that could surely start as a dynamic tight end on over half of the teams in the NFL. Bradley Bozeman turned out to be a decent starter at left guard. He was a key member of one of the NFL’s most successful units in 2019. Kenny Young helped reel in All-Pro Marcus Peters.

DeShon Elliott flashed potential as a rangy safety that can hit, before having his second straight campaign ended early due to injury. Zach Sieler has seen the field in regular season action, quite an accomplishment for a seventh round selection.

The 2018 draft is certainly among the best of the decade. NFL writer Marc Sessler ranked the greatest draft hauls in the modern NFL.

Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis were both selected in the 1996 draft. Two Hall of Fame players in one round. Jermaine Lewis was also selected in the fifth round, then proceeded to become one of the better return specialists in NFL history.

The other names?

DeRon Jenkins, Dexter Daniels, James Roe and Jon Stark. Their biggest accomplishment in pro football was being selected alongside Ogden and Lewis.

Arguably the greatest draft class in NFL history yielded two starters and a return specialist (who did make decent contribution as a receiver.)

In 2019 the Ravens acquired Earl Thomas III, Mark Ingram, Justin Bethel and Seth Roberts. Not exactly an earth shattering haul, but certainly nothing to sneeze at. While drafting two future Hall of Fame players is certainly more valuable, the greatest draft in NFL history returned two starters and a specialist. The Ravens modestly invested and received the same return in 2019 free agency.

The names that define the Baltimore Ravens franchise include draftees Ogden, Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, Peter Boulware, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda, and Todd Heap among many others.

Undoubtedly, the list of free agents is just as important: Steve Smith Sr., Derrick Mason, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Siragusa, Eric Weddle, Michael McCrary, Jacoby Jones, Matt Birk, Elvis Dumervil, Trevor Pryce, Samari Rolle, among others.

Franchises simply can’t achieve, much less sustain success without finding success in each avenue.

The Ravens have built through the draft. Lamar Jackson, Marquise Brown, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Marlon Humphrey, Matt Judon, Mark Andrews, Brandon Williams and company all play key roles. Without drafting successfully, you can’t consistently compete for championships.

Ozzie Newsome has rarely, if ever, cracked open the piggy bank to bring in a big name free agent in their prime. That has allowed the Ravens to avoid malignant signings such as Albert Haynesworth, Javon Walker, or David Boston, while consistently reeling in experienced and proven starters on the ‘back nine’ of their career.

The Ravens have filled voids through free agency, which allows them to draft. . . You guessed it. . . “The best player available.”

Players who fit that bill include Marlon Humphrey, Orlando Brown Jr., C.J. Mosley, Kelechi Osemele and Ray Rice. Players who weren’t the best available? Matt Elam, Breshad Perriman and Kamalei Correa, to name a few.

The sentiment is that drafting for need doesn’t turn out well. Drafting blue chip players from blue blood schools that have production, tape and measurable traits always fares better than trying to fill roster holes with rookies.

Rookies often struggle to produce at Quarterback, tight end, offensive tackle, defensive tackle, inside linebacker, and cornerback. Wide receiver, running back, interior offensive line, defensive end, safety and outside linebacker are often more impactful day one contributors.

This conversation is pertinent and relevant because the Ravens, who figure to return 10 or more key contributors on each side of the ball, are in a Super Bowl window.

With youth, continuity in both personnel and staff, and a few dollars spend, the Ravens can’t afford to have glaring weaknesses after free agency. If they’re forced to look to the draft to find starters at inside linebacker, offensive line or defensive line, doing it from the 28th pick is a long shot.

Drafting for need is also a disservice to the draft process itself, where talent from position to position fluctuates. Passing on a blue chip player in an attempt to fulfill a hole in the roster is an exercise in futility.

That’s what makes free agency all the more important in 2020. While it’s too early to know which players will be available, the important questions are already at hand.

Will Marshal Yanda retire? What will the Ravens do with Matt Judon? When should the Ravens extend Ronnie Stanley? Should Tony Jefferson be let go? Keep Jimmy Smith? Brandon Carr? Both? Neither?

Eric DeCosta must prepare for all possibilities to each scenario.

Ultimately, the best resolution lies in filling the holes in free agency, then adding one key contributor through the draft. In the end, the path to hoisting a Lombardi Trophy in 2021 will have more to do with the results of free agency, as expecting rookies to carry the load is foolish.

Thats what makes the next month for the NFL faithful so difficult. Waiting. Who will return to their former team? Who will hit the open market?

The speculation will run rampant, twitter debates will rage on and mock drafts will rain across the internet like a great monsoon.

Until then, all we can do is guess.