Mike Preston: Ravens draft projects could pay off in the long run | COMMENTARY


All drafts are geared toward building for the future, but the Ravens’ 2023 class in particular will be remembered more for long-range plans than immediate starters.

That’s different from a year ago when first-round picks Kyle Hamilton, a safety, and Tyler Linderbaum, a center, were expected to start right away. The Ravens also drafted other prominent rookies such as defensive tackle Travis Jones and cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis in 2022.

Both general manager Eric DeCosta and Joe Hortiz, the team’s director of player personnel, mentioned the word “projects” several times Saturday, which would be of some concern if the team were rebuilding.

But the Ravens aren’t in that class. They should be contenders again with their starting lineup pretty much set before the draft began Thursday night. The Ravens provided themselves with several possible starters in a few years in defensive end-outside linebacker Tavius Robinson (fourth round), Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly (fifth), and offensive linemen Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu of Oregon (sixth) and USC’s Andrew Vorhees (seventh).

It was important the Ravens added a speedy receiver such as Boston College’s Zay Flowers, selected with the No. 22 overall pick in the first round, but this draft wasn’t based solely on urgency.

“There are some years where you have a lot of picks and you sort of deviate a little bit from your sequence, because you’re trying to fill specific needs,” DeCosta said. “The mindset for me this year was just, ‘Try not to worry as much about the needs and just draft the best guy that’s there at every single pick,’ and I think we did it.

“Honestly, I can’t 100% say that we did it exactly, but I know it’s pretty damn close.”

Flowers is a fast receiver who could take the top off defenses, opening up the underneath routes for wideouts Rashod Bateman and Odell Beckham Jr., and tight end Mark Andrews.

There have been comparisons between Flowers and former Ravens receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, but they have little in common except for size and speed. Flowers is a bit thicker through the chest. He’ll run across the middle and make yards after initial contact. He can play in the slot or outside, and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken won’t use him as a blocker in a run-oriented offense.

Linebacker Trenton Simpson, the Ravens’ third-round pick, might get some playing time as well, though not as much as Flowers. At 6 feet 3 and 240 pounds, he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and is extremely agile and athletic. At Clemson, he could cover tight ends and running backs, which would be a plus because neither weak-side linebacker Patrick Queen, the Ravens’ 2020 first-round pick, nor Odafe Oweh, a 2021 first-rounder, can.

If the Ravens decline to pick up Queen’s fifth-year option for 2024 by Tuesday, then Simpson might become the eventual starter heading into that season.

The Ravens at least seem prepared, and they did the same thing with offensive linemen, selecting Aumavae-Laulu and Vorhees.

Vorhees tore an ACL at the NFL scouting combine and won’t be ready to play until 2024, and Aumavae-Laulu has played both guard positions as well as right tackle.

It puts the Ravens in good position because starting right tackle Morgan Moses is 32 and right guard Kevin Zeitler is 33. The Ravens don’t have a starting left guard and Ronnie Stanley, once one of the best left tackles in the game, will never play at that level again because of two major surgeries on his ankle. He struggled at times in pass protection last season.

You can’t predict whether the new acquisitions will become starters, but at least the Ravens have options.

“[He is] a very, very large offensive lineman,” DeCosta said of Aumavae-Laulu, who’s 6-6 and 330 pounds. “He’s played some left guard, he’s played some right guard, primarily has been a right tackle. He is a very, very good athlete for his size. He can pull, can play on his feet. We look at him as a real strong developmental guy. He has a lot of upside potential.”

Robinson, 6-6 and 265 pounds and raised in Ontario, was an intriguing pick. He has good speed and size, and he’s built like former Raven end Calais Campbell.

But even when ESPN showed his college highlights, he didn’t show much explosion off the ball.

Regardless, he’ll go into the “project” file as well. DeCosta always says a team can never have enough cornerbacks; his predecessor, Ozzie Newsome, said the same thing about defensive linemen.

“He’s very physical. He’s got a great motor, and he’s always running to the ball, making plays downfield,” Hortiz said. “So, the Raven mentality is there, the effort is there. He’s a developmental player in terms of playing ball in the States versus Canada, but he’s grown tremendously at Ole Miss, and we still see a lot more potential for him.”

There are the buzzwords again: “developmental” and “potential.” The Ravens apparently feel the same way about Kelly. He is a smart player who uses his leverage well and can play man-to-man. The Ravens are in desperate need of a starting cornerback, one who is fast and can shut down the other team’s top receiver.

The Ravens have two young cornerbacks who were drafted a year ago in Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams, who DeCosta said were slowed because of injuries. But neither played well before the injuries, and Armour-Davis got benched in the first half of the third game, against New England.

So, the Ravens will hit the free agent market, possibly re-signing Marcus Peters or maybe Fabian Moreau or Bryce Callahan. In a conference with quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen, having top cornerbacks needs to be a priority.

DeCosta said the Ravens roster isn’t set, which means they’ll be looking around. But after Saturday, they don’t have as much shopping to do.

They reloaded in most of the right areas.

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