Ravens need a lift from lower rounds

April 16, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens have hit home runs at the top of the NFL draft with such selections as Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, three of pro football's best young players.

But the team isn't hitting as well from the second round on down.

The Ravens need to start getting more out of their later picks if they're going to break the cycle of losing that has gripped them in the '90s.

There's no alternative, really. Unlike in baseball, NFL teams can't overcome drafting mistakes by spending tons of money on free agents. The NFL's open market is vastly overrated. Pro Bowl players are seldom available. The best you're going to get are solid, obscure veterans such as Wally Williams or James Jones. You need more than that.

The draft is the only way to build a solid, lasting contender in the NFL, which means it's essential for a team to draft the right player in the first round and score at least several hits in the lower rounds, too.

In three years of drafting since moving to Baltimore, the Ravens' record after the first round isn't as good as it needs to be for a losing team needing help in so many places.

It's essential that second-round picks become key contributors in such circumstances, and only one of the Ravens' four second-rounders, linebacker Jamie Sharper, is an established starter. And he's the weakest of the Ravens' three young linebackers.

The other second-rounders are cornerback DeRon Jenkins, who has failed to take a starting job that was virtually handed to him; wide receiver Patrick Johnson, who played little as a rookie last season; and safety Kim Herring, who started and showed promise before a shoulder separation ended his '98 season.

Johnson and Herring still have a chance to become contributors, but Jenkins' slow development underlines the setback that occurs when a team fails to score with a high pick. Three years after giving up three picks to get Jenkins, the Ravens are contemplating taking another cornerback, Chris McAlister, in the first round tomorrow.

Had Jenkins become the player the Ravens envisioned, they wouldn't need McAlister and could address another concern.

The same situation has occurred at running back, where Jay Graham, a third-round pick in 1997, has failed to win a job or even leave a mark, even though former coach Ted Marchibroda desperately wanted to play him. The Ravens remain unsure of their future at running back and probably will draft another this year.

In the lower rounds, the Ravens' record is similarly spotty. In three years, they have picked only one impact player after the second round -- Jermaine Lewis, the game-breaking receiver and return man, a fifth-round pick in 1996.

That was a terrific pick, and other later-round picks such as Tyrus McCloud, Cornell Brown and Ralph Staten have made a difference at times as special-teamers and backups.

But Lewis and center Jeff Mitchell, a fifth-round pick in 1997, are the team's only projected 1999 starters picked after the second round.

Let's face it, the Ravens need more out of the bottom end of their drafts.

You can't put all the blame on the player personnel department. Marchibroda ran a somewhat strange ship that didn't get the most out of some players' talents. Thus receiver James Roe, a former sixth-round pick, is entering his fourth season as an unknown quantity.

But Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the personnel department still are ultimately responsible for who gets drafted. This is their version of a big regular-season game.

It's asking too much to expect them to find a Terrell Davis (a sixth-rounder) or Jamal Anderson (a seventh-rounder), as did the Broncos and Falcons. Those were lottery-sized strokes of luck, the kind that seldom happen.

But it's not asking too much to expect the Ravens to follow the example of, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have drafted a starting tight end in the fifth round, a starting fullback in the sixth round and solid backup receivers in the fourth and seventh rounds.

There's your blueprint for escaping the tedium of seasons of 4-12, 6-9-1 and 6-10.

What happened a year ago in the draft is a blueprint for more of the same, old Ravens.

A year ago, they picked Duane Starks and Johnson in the first two rounds. The two combined for only eight starts as rookies. The third-round and fourth-round picks were dealt for veterans Jim Harbaugh and Errict Rhett, who failed to deliver. Fifth-round pick Ryan Sutter, advertised as a special-teams monster, was cut. So was sixth-round pick Ron Rogers, who was expected to push Ray Lewis at middle linebacker.

The Ravens aren't going to get better at that rate, with their drafts offering such little help.

Yes, their two prior drafts were better, and they deserve credit for making the right call on Ogden (over Lawrence Phillips), Boulware and particularly Ray Lewis, who has become the backbone of the defense as a low first-round selection. It's easy to blow those picks, and the Ravens didn't.

But they need to fill in the holes between those cornerstones with good, young players, and the draft is the only place to do it. A home run or three in the later rounds would help.

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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