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2020 NFL Draft: Prospects the Ravens should target in the first round

If any of these seven prospects are available when the Ravens are on the clock, Ravens GM Eric DeCosta should pounce

NCAA Football: Purdue at Penn State John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Ravens have yet to play their first playoff game, it is never too early to look ahead to the next NFL Draft. With the Ravens inevitably losing key players through retirement or free agency, the draft is the perfect place to reload on talent and fill needs. Here are seven first round prospects that would fit with the Ravens.

Penn State DE/OLB Yetur Gross-Matos 6’5”, 265 lbs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2019 stats: 23 solo tackles, 17 assisted, 14.5 TFL, 9 sacks

Yetur Gross-Matos was a menace for offensive lines to deal with this past season. Gross-Matos, who reminds me of former Raven Za’Darius Smith, is not a one dimensional defensive end. Gross-Matos sets the edge brilliantly and thus, is a very talented run defender. Additionally, Gross-Matos possesses a violent bull rush paired with a non-stop motor. Effort alone accounts for a number of Gross-Matos’ sacks. When he often lined up as a 5-technique along the opposing team’s left tackle, Gross-Matos used a powerful one-armed jab straight to the chest of the left tackle, which often put the left tackle back on his heels. Gross-Matos, who would most likely line up as a 5-technique defensive end or a standup outside linebacker (much like Matt Judon) if drafted by the Ravens, demonstrates great versatility as he worked as a stand up outside linebacker, a 5-technique defensive end, and a 3-technique defensive tackle during his time at Penn State. If Gross-Matos slips past the top-15, I would very much advocate for Eric DeCosta to trade up for Gross-Matos as he would be a home run pick for the Ravens.

Iowa University DE AJ Epenesa 6’6” 280 lbs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2019 stats: 32 solo tackles, 17 assisted, 14 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 3 PDs, 4 FFs

This past season, AJ Epenesa was the heart and soul of the Hawkeye defense in addition to being one of the best defensive ends in all of college football. Though Epenesa may not be as athletic as Yetur Gross-Matos, Epenesa has an uncanny ability to overpower offensive linemen. In any given one-on-one situation, Epenesa will win that battle nine times out of ten. In addition to his rare power, Epenesa is an incredible block shedder. Epenesa has very heavy hands and can get off of blocks when rushing the passer and defending the run. Epenesa also does a great job of anchoring down and closing gaps. Although Epenesa sometimes found himself not directly involved in the play where he makes a tackle or a sack, he often helped his teammates out when he was frequently double teamed, which allowed them to have one on ones with other linemen. Like Gross-Matos, many draft pundits label Epenesa as a top-15 draft pick. As of now, the Ravens would most likely need to trade up in the first round in order to pick Epenesa.

Boise State DE/OLB Curtis Weaver 6’3” 265 lbs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 New Mexico at Boise State Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2019 stats: 32 solo tackles, 20 assisted, 19.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PDs, 1 FF

Curtis Weaver completely dominated the Mountain West Conference during his time at Boise State. Weaver is the all-time leader in career sacks in the Mountain West Conference with 34 career sacks (6.5 more than Jerry Hughes who held the previous record). Weaver has a very quick get off and the type of first step that you’d like to see in a premier pass rusher. His calculated timing of the snap often allowed him to dip around the outside shoulder of the tackle and thus, sack the quarterback. Weaver also has the type of versatility that would allow him to flourish in a multitude of defensive schemes. Weaver has a variety of pass rush moves (though some are less refined) that he used throughout his time at Boise State. If drafted by the Ravens, Weaver would most likely operate as a stand up outside linebacker. Weaver’s size and his promising zone coverage abilities would make him fit very well as a stand up outside linebacker in the Ravens defense.

Oklahoma ILB Kenneth Murray 6’2” 234 lbs.

Tulane v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

2019 stats: 69 solo tackles, 33 assisted, 17 TFL, 4 sacks, 4 PDs

With a relative degree of uncertainty surrounding the the future of the inside linebacker position for the Ravens, drafting a player like Kenneth Murray would mitigate any doubt at the position. Linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Josh Bynes are currently slated to be free agents this upcoming offseason. If the Ravens opt not to re-sign either linebacker, the first round of the 2020 Draft would be the perfect place to find a long-term replacement. Murray is a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker as the nature of Big 12 offenses forced him to regularly defend swing passes, screens, and jet sweeps. Murray does a very good job blitzing and shooting gaps off of delayed blitzes. However, at times, Murray takes poor angles to the ball carrier, which leaves large holes for the running back to gash the defense for big gains. Some draft pundits view Murray as a raw prospect with loads of untapped potential. It didn't help that he was constantly tasked to unconventionally defend against non-pro level offenses on a weekly basis. That being said, Murray would flourish in Wink Martindale’s defensive scheme as he would be allowed to frequently blitz and be helped in coverage.

Georgia OG Solomon Kindley 6’4” 335 lbs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Arkansas State at Georgia

2019 stats: Started 11 of 13 games at left guard

Solomon Kindley is a powerful and dominant interior offensive lineman. He has meathooks for hands and uses them very effectively, especially in the initial pop off of the snap. Kindley was a consistent force when run blocking and also showed nimbleness and athleticism in pass protection. Many draft pundits see Kindley as one of the top one or two guards in this draft class, so it may be difficult for the Ravens to land Kindley without a trade up. If Kindley does end up on the Ravens, he would be a plug and play at either guard position. Kindley would most likely line up at the right guard spot since there has been growing speculation about longtime Ravens right guard, Marshal Yanda, hanging up the cleats and retiring. How the Ravens perform in the playoffs will most likely influence Yanda’s decision.

South Carolina DE Javon Kinlaw 6’6” 310 lbs.

Appalachian State v South Carolina Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

2019 stats: 15 solo tackles, 20 assisted, 6 TFL, 6 sacks, 2 PDs, 2 FRs

Drafting Javon Kinlaw would allow for the Ravens to have a vicious interior pass rush presence fore years to come. With a team looking to build their defense from back to front, adding Kinlaw would support such a plan. Kinlaw has a vicious first step and initial punch to the chest of the offensive lineman. He times the snap very well, which often gives him the initial advantage over the offensive lineman. However, such a rapid initial burst often created balance issues for Kinlaw, where he lost leverage. Kinlaw has an extremely powerful bull-rush, and that often came as a result of his great initial burst. In any given one on one situation, Kinlaw was very disruptive and frequently wreaked havoc. Kinlaw saw double teams game in and game out, which gives reason as to why his stats aren't as good as some other interior defensive linemen in college football. Pairing Kinlaw with DT Brandon Williams would pay big dividends as the future for the Ravens’ top run stuffer, Michael Pierce is undoubtedly uncertain.

Colorado WR Laviska Shenault Jr. 6’2” 220 lbs.

USC v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

2019 stats: 56 receptions, 764 yards, 4 TDs, 13.6 Avg, 23 rushes, 161 yards, 2 TDs

Laviska Shenault Jr. might be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the entire 2020 draft class. With a less than talented Colorado offense Shenault Jr. was involved in, the team relied on him to make plays. Shenault Jr. was used in many different ways to ensure that the ball got in his hands. Whether that involved using him in the wildcat or being Colorado QB Steven Montez’s primary option, Shenault Jr. repeatedly delivered. With the ball in his hands, Shenault Jr. looked more like a running back than a wide receiver. Though he is not overly fast or twitchy, his physicality allowed him to gain yards after the catch. Though Shenault Jr. may be pushed up the draft board because of receivers like Alabama’s DeVonta Smith returning back to school, I still feel that the Ravens would be able to draft Shenault Jr. if they stay put at whatever spot they will have in the first round. Adding Shenault Jr. to the already dynamic Ravens offense would add another interesting wrinkle to it. Regardless of Shenault Jr’s versatility as a running back and a wide receiver, as a traditional wide receiver, he has loads of potential as long as he continues to refine his raw route running abilities. Shenault Jr. reminds me of Deebo Samuel and how the 49ers utilized his versatility in the Kyle Shanahan run offense. Samuel’s physicality, athleticism, and leaping ability is very reminiscent to that of Shenault Jr.

Though the 2020 NFL Draft is a long three months away, this early preview can give you fans an idea of the type of players the Ravens will target when on the clock in the first round. In the meantime, catch the Ravens’ first playoff game this Saturday at 8:15 as they face the Titans at M&T Bank Stadium in the highly anticipated primetime Divisional Round matchup.