Upside of the Ravens’ Day 3 draft picks
As the NFL moves into organized-team activities and begins to look towards the start of training camp, the players acquired during the initial wave of free agency and early in the draft find themselves under the brightest spotlight. This makes sense, of course, as teams want to promote themselves through the lens of their biggest investments.
But while big-name free agents and early round picks stand to make larger impacts, the players found late in the draft can upend those expectations, a concept the Baltimore Ravens well understand. Just last season, two former Day 3 picks established themselves as major defensive contributors: Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon. Smith’s season earned him a lucrative multiyear contract with the Green Bay Packers while Judon returns to Baltimore as the de facto top edge rusher. In either case, they highlight the importance of an often-overlooked group of players.
For the Ravens to continue their upward trajectory, they have to find more gems in the later rounds of the draft. While not all of their Day 3 picks will develop into contributors, each has a reasonably high ceiling.
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Running back, Oklahoma State
Prior to Lamar Jackson ascending the depth chart in Week 11 of 2018 season, the Ravens’ ground game appeared utterly broken. Starting tailback Alex Collins plodded along at a clip of 3.7 yards per carry, just a tenth of a yard above the team average to that point of the year. Though Jackson and sidekick Gus Edwards dramatically improved Baltimore’s rushing efficiency — the offense averaged 5.1 yards per carry over the final seven weeks of the season — the ground game still needed an influx of talent.
To that end, general manager Eric DeCosta made two notable moves this offseason. He signed former New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram to a three-year, $15.5 million deal, a meaningful investment in an established lead back. DeCosta also spent his top Day 3 draft pick on Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, an all-world athlete and scatback who looks markedly different than anyone else in the team’s backfield.
While Ingram, Edwards, and Kenneth Dixon each resemble a traditional power back, Hill has the leaner build of a receiver. Indeed, Hill hauled in 49 passes during his time at Oklahoma State. In a best-case scenario, Hill could provide new Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman with a multi-purpose weapon with which to manipulate defenses not totally unlike how the Chicago Bears exploit Tarik Cohen.
Offensive lineman, Oklahoma
The Ravens received good news earlier this offseason when All-Pro offensive lineman Marshal Yanda announced his plans to push off retirement for another year. While Yanda should secure one of the two guard spots, the offense will still have to replace him in the not-too-distant future.
With that in mind, the Ravens invested an early Day 3 selection on Ben Powers. Powers has the build of an NFL offensive lineman (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) and the pedigree (three-year starter on Oklahoma’s powerhouse offense) to develop into a starter down the line. The year with Yanda should allow Powers to refine his craft and, upon Yanda’s eventual retirement, find himself in the driver’s seat to replace him.
Defensive back, Southern California
Though the Ravens fielded the AFC’s best defense in 2018, weaknesses in the secondary ultimately contributed to the team’s one-and-done playoff fate. Myriad injuries have slowed Jimmy Smith, who allowed completions on nearly 70 percent of his targets as well as 23 first downs and two scores last season. Brandon Carr posted a better completion rate (54.1 percent) but gave up significantly more yards on receptions (15 per catch). Even Tavon Young, once a promising slot corner, struggled in coverage, registering a defensive passer rating of 95.1.
The Ravens didn’t make any sizable free-agent investments in their corner group, choosing instead to sign future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas to buoy the secondary. The team followed that approach through the first two days of the draft, finally adding a cornerback with their final fourth-round pick: Southern California’s Iman Marshall.
Marshall has the length and skill set for bump-and-run coverage and could stand in for the oft-injured Jimmy Smith. Alternatively, Marshall’s size and willingness for contact could lend itself to an in-the-box safety role. If the rookie ends up in either role, the Ravens will have little reason to complain.
Defensive lineman, Texas A&M
Few NFL teams still covet throwback nose tackles, the massive hole plugs that once populated the middle of every defensive line. And while the Ravens don’t play with one on every down, they have made regular use of Brandon Williams, a 340-pound mammoth critical to the run defense.
But as Williams ages — he turned 30 shortly after Super Bowl LIII — Baltimore has to find ways to reduce his workload without sacrificing too much defensively. Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack, the team’s fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft, possesses nearly identical size to Williams and handled a similar role in college. Though that likely means Mack will play only as a reserve early in his career, he has the chance to move into the starting lineup should the Ravens move on from Williams.
Quarterback, Penn State
A one-time Heisman contender, Trace McSorley never captivated NFL talent evaluators the way he did with college coaches. Issues with passing accuracy and general throwing mechanics contributed to his fall into the final rounds of the draft where the Ravens snatched him up just inside the top 200.
While McSorley’s mobility suggests he could serve as a budget stand-in for Jackson, the Ravens might make better use of the rookie quarterback in a role that more closely mirrors that of the Saints’ Taysom Hill. Though somewhat lighter than Hill, McSorley ran like a power back at Penn State. Additionally, he could allow Greg Roman to develop packages similar to the ones New Orleans head coach Sean Payton designed for Hill.
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.