The Ravens' war room was abuzz with anticipation on draft day two years ago.
The team was on the clock with the 10th pick. There for the taking sat two of the most tantalizing athletes in the Class of 1999: cornerback Chris McAlister and linebacker/end Jevon Kearse.
A debate ensued. Should the Ravens take the sure-fire cornerback or the big-play pass rusher? As he usually does, Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, ended the discussion with a nod toward the big board, where McAlister was the fifth-rated player and Kearse the sixth.
So McAlister was the pick, even though the Ravens had Rod Woodson - soon to become a safety - and Duane Starks starting at cornerback at the time.
With the NFL draft 11 days away, it is a scenario worth remembering. In the Ravens' brief draft history in Baltimore, they appear to always take the top-rated player available, as opposed to a pick based entirely on need.
They also did it with the fourth pick in the 1996 draft with Jonathan Ogden when they already had Tony Jones and Orlando Brown at offensive tackle.
"We've stayed with our board, whether it was need or not," Newsome said yesterday at a draft luncheon at PSINet Stadium. "When we took Jonathan Ogden, we didn't have a need at that position. But he was the best player at that point. We will always be consistent with that."
They will honor their draft board whether the pick is No. 4, No. 10 or No. 31, which is where they start this year's college lottery as defending Super Bowl champions.
This year, perhaps more than any since the team moved from Cleveland in 1996, that philosophy meshes perfectly with the situation. The Ravens have no glaring needs in the starting lineup, but could use depth across the board. Neither do their recent free-agent signings of offensive tackle Leon Searcy and linebacker Jamie Sharper rule out first-round picks at either position.
"Just because Jamie Sharper signed doesn't mean the 31st pick is not going to be a linebacker," said coach Brian Billick. "The good thing is, it doesn't have to be a linebacker. It doesn't have to be a tackle, because Leon Searcy is in camp. But if it's a tackle, it'll be a tackle."
If not a linebacker, the 31st pick could be a wide receiver or a tight end or a safety or a defensive lineman. The beauty of this year's Ravens' draft is that they can go in almost any direction.
"We're trying to build a base of players at that 31 area where we'll make a good decision and leave ourselves open to the possibility of moving back," said Phil Savage, the team's director of college scouting.
The Ravens have done a masterful job at the top of the draft the past five years. They collected seven first-round picks in that time, and, with the exception of injured wide receiver Travis Taylor, all started in the Super Bowl.
They've also selectively hit big in the lower rounds. They took kick returner/wide receiver Jermaine Lewis in the fifth round in 1996, and landed receiver Brandon Stokley and guard Edwin Mulitalo in the fourth in 1999. Savage links their success to continuity.
"Hopefully, we do a professional enough job it doesn't have to turn into a science project," he said. "But there is a method to it. I think that's the advantage we have, the fact Ozzie and I have worked together on this thing six straight years now.
"We have three other scouts and myself who've been together nine years. As scouting director, it's easy for me to figure out what one of our scouts is telling me, because I have worked with him before. When your staff changes, you're not as sure what you're getting."
Picking at the bottom of a round is a new challenge. To gauge the prospects, Savage surveyed a range of picks from 26 through 36 - five on either side of the Ravens' choice - from 1996 through 1999. What he found was eye-opening.
"There were 24 hits, 20 misses, for 54 percent," Savage said. "We're swimming in dangerous water."
Newsome said the Ravens would trade up only if a top-10 talent fell into the bottom third of the first round. More likely, he said, is the chance they would trade down for extra picks.
"As we get to No. 31 and have four or five players we like and someone's on the phone calling us with a pick inside the 40s, we'd probably drop back and gain an extra pick," he said.
It's a draft that will start with quarterback Michael Vick, but almost immediately will turn into a guessing game. There is no consensus at the top of the first round.
Said Savage: "There are going to be players taken in the 30s, 40s and 50s that are going to be every bit as good as players taken in the teens and 20s. I think it's that close on a lot of players."
The deepest positions are defensive line, where Newsome projects four or five could go in the top 12, and wide receiver (10 may go in the first two rounds, Savage said).
What positions are on Billick's shopping list?
"If I could orchestrate it, I'd like to see a broad-based use of the draft picks," he said. "One from Column A, one from Column B, one from everything that would give us depth and allow our young players to try to develop into a starting role across the board. If we can get some special teams players out of defensive back, linebacker, running back, that would be an added plus."
Just don't be lulled into thinking this is an afterthought draft.
"This really is as critical a draft as we've had," Savage said, "because No. 1, we're going to lose players in the next couple years. The salary cap is going to catch up to us. We really need to hit as many players as we can this year, because if we're going to stay competitive over the long haul, then some of these guys we pick are going to end up having to be players."