Five targets for the Ravens’ No. 16 overall draft pick
The 2018 NFL Draft kicks off in just a few days, which means that every team has concluded interviews, finalized its board, and set up shop in the war room. Meanwhile, fans remain mostly in the dark about their team’s intentions. Not even supporters of the Cleveland Browns, the team holding the first and fourth overall picks know how Thursday will unfold.
That leaves considerable uncertainty regarding the Baltimore Ravens, who don’t come on the clock until almost exactly halfway through the first round. The Ravens have many needs to target with their top selection, but their history indicates that the brain trust of general manager Ozzie Newsome and his named successor Eric DeCosta could instead select a prospect at another position with greater upside. This dynamic further clouds Baltimore’s intentions.
Accordingly, predicting how the Ravens will use their first-round pick presents considerable challenges. Even if the front office has a name or two in mind, their draft position could render those plans moot.
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Still, the Ravens haven’t completely hidden their intentions, as their pre-draft visits and prospect meetings have come to light. As such, one of the following players could hear their name called for Baltimore should the team keep their current pick.
The Ravens threw multiple draft picks at their pass rush last year, including two selections inside the top 75. Those players combined for 16 tackles and three sacks in 2017. While that production doesn’t prevent either one from developing into a dependable pass rusher, it underscores the need to add more ammunition during the upcoming draft.
While the Ravens haven’t met with UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, he fits the mold of a Baltimore edge rusher. He has surplus size (6-foot-6, 264 pounds) and athleticism (80th percentile for his position group by SPARQ) to pressure quarterbacks at the NFL level.
Davenport will likely take more time to develop than a player like Boston College’s Harold Landry, but the Ravens have the luxury to bring him along slowly. He only needs to provide a handful of snaps a game early on given the edge rushers Baltimore currently possesses.
While that might suggest the Ravens should look at another position with the No. 16 overall pick, Davenport has legitimate potential to become a lead pass rusher for a decade or more. Few teams have the luxury of passing up such a player.
The Ravens have more pressing needs than quarterback at the outset of the 2018 NFL Draft. The defense lacks a tertiary pass rusher to pair with Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon. The stability of offensive line remains unclear after Marshal Yanda’s injury and the departure of Ryan Jensen. Additionally, the receiving corps lacks an alpha and will depend on a trio of new arrivals — John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead — for production.
Still, for a team without any meaningful commitments to a struggling 33-year-old quarterback beyond the 2018 season, finding a successor now could jumpstart the soon-to-arrive DeCosta era.
In terms of style and physical gifts, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson differs greatly from Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ starting quarterback since 2008. Jackson’s elite-level athleticism places him in rare company, and his improvement as a passer between his Heisman-winning 2016 campaign and his final collegiate season silenced most (though not all) questions about his ability to play quarterback in the NFL.
And Baltimore had demonstrated in shifting from a more traditional drop-back passer like Flacco to one as prodigiously gifted as Jackson. Already, the team has brought on Robert Griffin III to compete for a roster spot, suggesting that the coaching staff believes it can develop mobile signal-callers. Just as importantly, the Ravens met with Jackson during the pre-draft process. If he lasts until pick No. 16, they will face a franchise-altering decision.
D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley
WR, Maryland and Alabama
At present, the Ravens have several useful pass catchers but no go-to target. Finding one in the draft could prove the difference between another inefficient offense and one that can more reliably take the pressure of Baltimore’s defense.
The 2017 wideout class lacks the depth of previous years and not all pundits agree a No. 1 receiver will emerge from it. However, Maryland’s D.J. Moore and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley checks a lot of boxes, especially for teams in need of instant impact at the position. Moore delivered a dominant final college season despite suspect quarterback play. The wideout also tested out as one of the top athletes at the combine. Ridley offers an even longer track record, catching 224 passes for 2,781 yards and 19 touchdowns over a three-year career. He also helped the Crimson Tide reach back-to-back national title games, winning the championship this past season.
Given Moore’s proximity to the Ravens, Newsome and his personnel department has likely scouting him as much as any team in the NFL. As for Ridley, Newsome has a well-documented affinity for Alabama players, most recently selecting cornerback Marlon Humphrey and edge rusher Tim Williams in 2017 draft.
Both wideouts offer some risk. Moore has only average length for the position (6-foot frame, 31 5/8-inch arms). Ridley doesn’t stand much taller at 6-foot-1 and lacks the all-around athleticism typical of a first-round receiver. Still, both players have fantastic straight-line speed and the ability to separate from defenders, qualities that Baltimore’s receiving corps could use.
Leighton Vander Esch
LB, Boise State
One face connects the Ravens’ two Super Bowl-winning squads: Ray Lewis. The Hall of Fame linebacker directed defenses for more than a decade, earning seven first-team All-Pro nods and two Defensive Player of the Year awards in the process. While Baltimore has employed other stars at the position, none have commanded it as well as Lewis.
Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch doesn’t possess Lewis’ intensity of flair for the dramatic, but he does offer rare size and athleticism for an off-ball linebacker. Few defenders had a more productive 2017 campaign than Vander Esch, who registered 141 tackles (8.5 for loss), four sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions. Even fewer put together the kind of combine workout that landed him in the 97th percentile for a linebacker by SPARQ. That combination of performance and physical gifts will make Vander Esch a hot commodity in the first round.
The Ravens already have a star inside linebacker with C.J. Mosley, but they haven’t had much luck finding him a running mate. Zach Orr appeared well on his way to establishing himself as a depending starting linebacker when doctors diagnosed him with a congenital spine condition, effectively ending his career. The team also invested a second-round pick into Vander Esch’s former college teammate Kamalei Correa, but he never developed. As a result, Baltimore has played with a sizable void in the middle of their defense over the past few seasons.
Vander Esch wouldn’t solve all of the Ravens’ problems — no individual player could — but he can close the middle of the field while giving new defensive coordinator Don Martindale a versatile weapon to play with.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior reporter and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.