The 2018 NFL draft begins tonight, April 26th at 8 pm, and with it comes change around the league. Young college stars will soon realize their dream of playing in the NFL, looking to improve their respective teams through their play. Over the next few days, a total of 256 rookies will hear their names called, 8 of which will become Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens, like any team in the league, have their strengths and weaknesses, which should help create a definitive list of their draft needs.
Before the offseason began, if you asked anyone around the league what the Ravens’ biggest need was, they’d say something like, “Almost the entire offense” which would be completely fair. The front office has been actively improving the team, creating a brand new receiving corp that looks promising on paper. That said, there’s still work to be done before we can be considered a legitimate contender, and it starts with the team’s current biggest need.
(1) Tight End: I’ve covered the state of this position before, so I won’t go into extreme detail, but this unit is certainly among the worst in the league. Maxx Williams was explosive in college and is reportedly in much better shape this year, but you can’t bank on him being a quality starter at this point in his career. The lack of acquisitions at the position leads me to believe that a rookie tight end will be a priority. Again, I covered the options in the article linked above, but I’d be shocked if the Ravens didn’t use a second round pick on one of the top 5 tight ends this year.
(2) Center: After letting Ryan Jensen walk for a monster contract in Tampa Bay, the Ravens are left with Matt Skura as the lone center on the team, making it the second-biggest draft need. All of the available center prospects would be a considerable reach at 16, but if we were to trade all the way out of the first round (unlikely) or move up in the second, a selection of Billy Price, James Daniels, or Frank Ragnow would make a ton of sense. We’ll likely find better value at other positions early, and could look for a later round guy to develop. Tony Adams, Mark Korte, or Mason Kole, who Matt Wise mocked in his reasonable dream scenario, could all be solid selections in the 4th round. If the position is ignored in the draft completely, fans will have to pray that either Skura or one of our guards can move over and anchor the position, because there isn’t much available in free agency at the moment.
(3) Right Tackle: Austin Howard was an early cap cut that helped us sign our new pass catchers, but his departure left a hole at the right side of the line. If the season started today, either Alex Lewis or James Hurst would bump to the outside to start, and though they both have experience there, that scenario is less than ideal. Thankfully, according to a litany of mock drafts and analysis, the general consensus is that Mike McGlinchey could fall into our laps at 16th overall. The huge tackle out of Notre Dame has shown flashes of dominance in his college career, and if some of his mechanical issues can be coached up his success could easily translate to the NFL. If the draft board falls close to how it’s expected to, this pick would make too much sense to avoid. If they don’t want to spend a first at this position, look for them to either pick up a guy with great measurables like Brandon Parker in the mid rounds, or to potentially skip out on the position altogether and roll with what we’ve got.
Depth / Future Investments
For the most part, the 2018 squad has a starter penciled in at every position not listed above. The defense remains largely intact from a year ago, and it’ll be interesting to see how the unit grows under Don Martindale. But there’s always work to be done, whether that be through adding a complementary piece or a potential replacement for an aging player. These positions don’t necessarily need a savior, but could use an extra piece or two to strengthen.
(4) Inside Linebacker: I was tempted to put this position in the section above, as the Ravens run a base 3-4 defense that sees 2 ILBs on the field for most plays, but it felt more appropriate here. 2014 first round selection, CJ Mosley, is likely to be extended and considered a cornerstone of the defense for the majority of his career. The 3 time second-team all-pro does a lot of things well, but is honestly a liability in coverage. Opposing tight ends have a field day against him, forcing us to use extra safety help and opening up chances for big plays down the field. I think he deserves all the money he’s likely to get, but he needs a competent partner by his side. If Roquan Smith were to fall to 16, we could choose to pair up 2 1st round picks with styles that compliment one another and take the defense to another level. Darius Leonard could be another solid choice in the third round, and could play both ILB and OLB potentially. For a late, potentially high upside pick, Matt Wise mocks Shaun Dion Hamilton, who struggled with serious injuries, in the 6th round. The Alabama connection is there, and if healthy he could improve our coverage ability at the position nicely.
(5) Quarterback: Joe Flacco is entering the most important year of his career since his contract year in 2012-2013. Aside from 2014, it’s been a painful 5 years in Baltimore. Flacco has continued to struggle with consistency, hasn’t developed like the front office has hoped, and has suffered both an ACL and back injury. While guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady are still going strong at 39 and 40 respectively, Flacco surely doesn’t seem to have another 7 years left in him. While picking up Lamar Jackson in the first and ushering in a new era in Baltimore is certainly an exciting proposition, I think a team will look to trade up to take him ahead of us. In the event that Mason Rudolph has a surprising fall, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team make a move, otherwise I’d expect *Insert your favorite late round prospect*. Though I consider this position a relatively high need, I believe there’s a high chance it goes unaddressed until next year.
(6) Free Safety: Eric Weddle is 33 years old and will be entering the final year of his contract in 2019. Though he’s still playing at a high level, it’s incredibly likely this will be his final contract in the league. Behind him on the depth chart are Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark, who make an impact on special teams but shouldn’t be depended on as starters. The team should be looking to draft Weddle’s replacement this year and give him a couple years to be groomed into a starter, while seeing time in certain nickel and dime packages. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James would be easy choices if they were available, but both will likely be selected in the top 15. A more likely scenario would be taking DeShon Elliot if he’s available in the 4th. Ideally, the team should be looking for a ball-hawk style safety with great coverage skills to complement what Tony Jefferson does well, helping him reach the potential we saw when we signed him last off-season.
(7) Wide Receiver: The Wide Receiver corp is completely new this year, which is a true breath of fresh air and hopefully a change of culture. But we have to be realistic about what we’ve got. Michael Crabtree is a low end WR1 in the league who’s likely past his prime. John Brown is a speed threat with an extensive injury history that suggests he’s all but guaranteed to miss time under his one year contract. Willie Snead is a slot guy who was very productive in 2015 and 2016, but that was with one of the game’s all time greatest gunslingers in Drew Brees. Not to mention he missed time last year before apparently being regulated to Sean Peyton’s doghouse. Make no mistake, I love the addition of each receiver and have higher hopes than I should, but we’re far from having the best trio in the league. After them, we have the same depth we had a year ago, sans Michael Campanaro. The team should look to add depth, if for nothing else than injury preparation. Getting Calvin Ridley or DJ Clark is probably unnecessary and unlikely at this point, but picking up Michael Gallup in the 3rd would be a dream situation. Auden Tate is another potential pickup, likely in the 4th round. His size would provide an element to the team that isn’t currently present, and could add a new dimension to the pass game. We no longer need to look for a starter in this draft, but a complementary piece could potentially increase the position tenfold.
(8) Cornerback: Cornerback has the potential to be one of the strongest positions we field in 2018. Marlon Humphrey truly looked like a first round pick in his playing time last year, and he should be on the field much more often in year two. When healthy, Jimmy Smith is undoubtedly a top 10 cornerback with the potential to be placed even higher, and Brandon Carr provides a dependable veteran presence. That’s not to mention the return of Tavon Young, who looked like a difference maker in the slot in 2016. But both Carr and Smith are at an age where you have to think about their replacements down the line. Smith already has a disastrous injury history, and league history doesn’t exactly show a correlation between older age and fewer injuries. It might not be a bad idea to find a corner to put on the opposite side of Marlon Humphrey to shut down the high powered offenses we’ll be facing for the foreseeable future. A later round option like Dane Cruikshank, a big-bodied corner out of Arizona who could outperform his draft position, could be most viable for the team. That said, if the front office falls in love with a top talent like Josh Jackson or Isaiah Oliver, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see them use an early pick on the position 2 years in a row.
(9) Running Back: Alex Collins saw a breakout season in 2017, after failing to stick in Seattle during his rookie year. At just 23 years of age, the Irish dancer quickly became a fan favorite, and was often the lone bright spot on an offense that was painful to watch at times. Collins was a spark, and did a lot of things well in the backfield, but he has his weaknesses as well. He doesn’t run exceptionally well between the tackles, fairing much better on stretches and plays that he can break to the outside. He also isn’t a real threat as a receiver outside of some swing passes and screens. Because of that, the Ravens could look to add a complementary back to the team. Rashaad Penny could be a perfect fit if he’s available in the third. Penny is a powerful downfield runner, with above average hands and route running. However, the position may be viewed as a luxury pick this year, and a more needed player could take precedence, particularly if the team is happy with what they have in Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon.
Positions to Avoid
In the NFL it’s fair to say that if you’re not improving you’re regressing. Staying stagnant will cause you to fall behind as everyone around you continues to get better. Because of that, it’s hard to say any position group is fine as it is. That said, the units below are in a relatively good place for the near future, and other positions should take priority barring a crazy slide from a top tier player.
(10) Defensive Line: The defensive line, and front seven in general, was one of the strengths of the Ravens in 2017. Brandon Williams recently got rewarded with a huge contract for being one of the best run stuffers in the league, and Michael Pierce showed that he’s underrated and versatile as well. The front office seems to love the potential of Brent Urban, and used recent draft picks on Bronson Kaufusi, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, and Carl Davis. This position has seen enough draft stock put into it already, and should be avoided this year unless the team finds some crazy value. Unless Bradley Chubb manages to slip all the way to us (he absolutely will not), this position group is likely set in stone.
(11) Guard: With the return of both Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis, and the extension of James Hurst, this position seems pretty set. The team also just drafted both Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eleumunor last year as guys they could potentially develop. With 3 potential starters at the 2 positions (Look for Hurst or Lewis to move to center or right tackle if the needs aren’t addressed) and a couple of second year guys for depth, a selection at guard wouldn’t be a good move in my eyes.
(12) Outside Linebacker: Pretty much the same as the defensive line section. Terrell Suggs is coming off of a great year, and though he’s getting up there in age, he’s shown he can still play at a high level. On the other side, Matt Judon showed he’s starter potential with 8 sacks a year ago. Mix in the ridiculous depth of Za’Darius Smith, Tim Williams, and Tyus Bowser, and this position should be set for at least the next few years. Aside from Suggs, the entire position group is young, and it should be exciting to see how they all develop. Even if Suggs were to retire at the end of the season, we’re set here, and I don’t see value at any round that would convince me to make a selection here. Let the young guys get some experience and show how special they can be.
(13) Left Tackle: The Ravens showed a lot of faith in Ronnie Stanley when they drafted him 6th overall in the 2016 draft. To this point, he’s done nothing to make them regret the decision. Stanley is heading into his 3rd season and likely won’t be replaced any time soon. He’s a dependable player at arguably the most important position on the offensive line. I expect the team to add a starting right tackle in the draft (mentioned at 3) and then potentially add depth in the form of an undrafted rookie free agent.
(14) Strong Safety: Tony Jefferson just finished his first season for the team after signing a lucrative deal last offseason. While he had his moments, he was disappointing overall. Jefferson was a liability in coverage, and was often out of position in crucial moments. Most of his difficulties can be attributed to poor usage, Dean Pees seemed to almost use him and Weddle backwards. Jefferson should play closer to the line more often, and excels in run support; he should never be the single high safety, and that situation played out far too often last year. An extra year on the team, and perhaps some changes in philosophy under Don Martindale should be good for him. He’s still only 26, with the potential to be great for us. It’s far too early to begin thinking about replacing him.
(15) Fullback: The NFL has developed into a pass-first league, and with that change has come a diminishing need for the fullback position. Having a solid player at the position can certainly help facilitate a strong power run game, but most teams don’t even carry a fullback on the roster at this point. The fullback position is on the endangered species list, but Patrick Ricard is among the best of the few that remain. In fact, according to pro football focus, he’s the actual best. Not bad for a converted D-lineman.
(16) Punter: In a lot of ways, Sam Koch revolutionized the game for modern punting. While he wasn’t the first to do it, Koch made the backspin punt popular. Today, you see almost every punter utilizing the technique to pin opponents against their own goal line, but Sam remains one of the best. Koch has everything you want in a punter: a powerful leg, pinpoint accuracy, elite consistency, a cannon of an arm, and Bo Jackson-esque speed. He’s the total package, and he’s not going anywhere.
(17) Kicker: Justin Tucker is the GOAT. Not just the GOAT Kicker, not just the GOAT football player, but the GOAT in sports overall. When Tucker lines up for a 50+ yard kick, there’s a level of confidence that can’t be seen anywhere else in the league, and he’s so automatic that I believe we actually take great kicking for granted. Watching a team like the Chargers last year made it even easier to appreciate Tucker, and we should do everything in our power to keep him a Raven for life. No kicking prospect in the existence of the sport should be considered over what we have.