Revisiting the Ravens’ 2014 draft class
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has long reigned as one of the best talent evaluators in the modern NFL. Along with luminaries in the field such as the Green Bay Packers’ Ted Thompson, the Seattle Seahawks’ John Schneider and the think tank headed by Bill Belichick in New England, Newsome regularly uncovers some of the best college talent in the draft, helping the Ravens reach the postseason seven times over the past ten years. Nowhere has Baltimore’s GM better showcased this skill than with his sterling 2014 draft class, helping set the team up for success in the long-term.
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Coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, Newsome and his personnel department realized they needed to massively overhaul a defense that had succumbed to Father Time. A year earlier, the unit lost future Hall of Famer linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement following the team’s 2012 title run, with fellow University of Miami alumnus Ed Reed leaving for Houston that same offseason. With Haloti Ngata exhibiting similar decline as his 30th birthday neared, Baltimore’s front office had holes to fill at all three levels of the defense.
Some general managers let team needs guide their draft decisions. Others run their war room purely on the basis of best player available. Newsome blends those approaches to achieve optimal results. That method produced an All-Pro linebacker and an immensely talented interior defensive lineman within the team’s first three selections.
Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, once viewed as a certain top-10 pick, slipped amid health concerns and the clumping of elite talent at the top of the draft. That left him available when the Ravens came on the clock at pick No. 17. After a season squandered with Jameel McClain and Daryl Smith at inside linebacker, Newsome pulled the trigger on Mosley, securing a worthy heir to the departed Lewis.
With his subsequent pick, Newsome snatched up another player that had fallen well past his expected draft slot. Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan had earned praise for his ability to stop the run and play a variety of places along the defensive line, but managed to slip out of the first round. With an eye on the future, Baltimore added him to learn under Ngata.
No GM bats 1.000, and Newsome certainly misfired in the 2014 draft. In the third round, he took another Seminole, safety Terrence Brooks. Brooks, a converted cornerback, possessed many of the physical traits desirable in an NFL defensive back. His top-flight speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds — and near 40-inch vertical leap helped him stand out among the rookie safety class. However, in Brooks has yet to master the mental aspects of the position, with opposing offenses too frequently catching him out of position or failing to adequately cover his zone. Accordingly, Brooks has not established himself as a starter thus far in his professional career.
Later in the third round, the Ravens took a chance on Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore, a wonderfully named tight end with amble size but unrefined skills. With starter Dennis Pitta limited to just four games during the previous season, Gillmore had the chance to become the long-term solution at a key position in Baltimore’s offense. He played sparingly in Year 1, but became the full-time starter in 2015, finishing third on the team in receiving yards (412) and second in touchdown receptions (four).
The final day of the draft, which composes rounds four through seven, generally involves developmental players. Many of those selected late spend little or no time in the league before moving onto the next stage of their lives. So it speaks well of Newsome that nearly every selection he made on Day 3 in 2014 not only made the 53-man roster but have become significant contributors as well.
Fourth-rounders Brent Urban and Lorenzo Taliaferro have etched out backup roles on defense and offense respectively, with the latter filling in as a starter for stretches during his rookie campaign. However, the bigger contributions have come from offensive lineman John Urschel and wideout Michael Campanaro. Urschel started multiple games as a rookie and nearly half the season in 2015. Should the Ravens lose guard Kelechi Osemele in free agency, Urschel stands the best chance of replacing him with the No. 1 unit. Meanwhile, Campanaro shown signs of developing into a useful slot receiver and return specialist. Given the possible defection of Kamar Aiken and continued absence of Steve Smith, Campanaro should see a significant uptick in snaps next year.
Newsome has put together numerous quality draft classes. 2008 produced Joe Flacco and Ray Rice while ’07 gave Baltimore two starting offensive linemen in Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda. However, no class appears to have provided the top-to-bottom talent influx of the ’14 class. Even though the Ravens struggled last season, they stand a great chance of rebounding due to the players drafted that year. Just as importantly, if Newsome can replicate his draft approach from that offseason, the team could return to title contention in the near future.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.