For the Ravens, the NFL draft has been a combination of strategy, skill and luck

  • The Ravens have had their share of early-round draft success stories with player such as Joe Flacco, top left, and Torrey Smith, bottom left. And even with impressive free-agent discoveries such as Justin Tucker, bottom right, it's difficult to avoid busts such as Sergio Kindle, top right.
The Ravens have had their share of early-round draft success…
May 03, 2014|By Jeff Zrebiec | The Baltimore Sun

Select an immediate standout early, an eventual starter or two later, then round out the class with a few rookie free-agent gems. For much of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's tenure, that's been his blueprint on draft day.

"Once you start out [by drafting] two Hall of Famers in Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, it's kind of hard not to go downhill from there," joked former Ravens head coach Brian Billick, now an NFL Network analyst. "But downhill is still pretty darn good."

The NFL draft is an inexact science. It takes conviction and good fortune, preparation and patience. Few teams have done it better than the Ravens, though their most recent drafts have been more sound than spectacular.

As the 2014 draft nears, starting with Thursday's first round, neither Billick nor any other analyst is suggesting that Newsome and his front office have suddenly lost their touch. The Ravens continue to be hailed as one of the league's gold standards for their ability to spot, acquire and develop talent.

This year, with eight picks, including the 17th overall, and an extensive list of needs, the Ravens know that they cannot afford to miss. They need more immediate help than they got from last year's draft class.

"They are coming off an 8-8 season where it was demonstrated that even though Joe Flacco is a $120 million quarterback, he needs help around him," said former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, a key member of the Ravens' front office from 1996 to 2004. "He needs a solid line, he needs a run game, he needs Dennis Pitta to stay healthy, he needs to get better play from his receivers. There's always pressure every year in the draft. Once that standard has been set, you try to build off the tradition that is in place."

From 1996 to 2007, a stretch in which a nascent franchise morphed into a perennial winner, Newsome made 14 first-round selections; 10 of them made at least one Pro Bowl. In 2008, Newsome added Flacco, a future Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and running back Ray Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl selection.

Rice, however, was the last player the Ravens drafted to make a Pro Bowl. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets have gone through a longer drought.

"We want guys that come in [and] contribute, they are good citizens, they play right away," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "We don't care about Pro Bowls. We care about Super Bowls."

Adding to winning nucleus

Since 2008, the Ravens have won 71 games, more than any other team besides the New England Patriots (76). They've done it by annually bolstering a veteran nucleus with a few free-agent additions and an influx of rookie talent.

Sixteen of their projected starters for 2014 are homegrown players. There were 38 homegrown players on the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII roster. But in recent offseasons, they have watched draft successes such as Arthur Jones and Paul Kruger move on in free agency. Other picks haven't measured up.

Cornerback Lardarius Webb, a third-round pick, is the only Raven left from the 2009 draft. Pitta and nose tackle Terrence Cody are the last men standing from 2010. In the 2011 and 2012 drafts, of Ravens' 10 selections made in the fourth round or later, only six remain in the organization.

Such turnover is more of the norm than the exception. The Cleveland Browns have only one player remaining from each of the 2009 and 2010 drafts. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't have any players left from their 2008 and 2009 drafts.

"It's hit or miss," said ESPN analyst Mark Dominik, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to 2013. "If you draft 12 players in 2009 and 50 percent of them are still in the league five years later, that's actually a pretty good draft, whether they are on your team or not."

Russ Lande, a former NFL scout who now works as the director of college scouting for National Football Post, remembers former St. Louis Rams general manager Charley Armey telling him that no matter how much homework he did on prospects, he'd still miss on draft picks at least 30 percent of the time.

"You can't predict how a player is going to adapt to the NFL," Lande said. "It's a difficult thing to figure out — the mental side, the intangibles, and that's usually the difference between players that make it and players that don't."

Lande considers the Ravens one of the top three organizations in drafting players.

Searching for starters, not stars

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, said the organization had a simple formula in determining whether the draft was a success.

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