Since the sports world and the world in general came to a screeching halt in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there quite simply has been nothing, nada, zip for collective sports eyes to focus on. That comes to a screeching halt April 23 when the NFL begins its annual draft.
The NFL had expected some 750,000 people to attend parts of the three-day pick-a-thon in Las Vegas. Now, ESPN is counting on those sets of eyes and many more to watch what ESPN is calling the most complicated broadcast it has ever faced.
Thirty-two general managers and their staffs will be juggled, with nobody being in a room together. So as complicated as it will be for ESPN, think how complicated it’ll be for each team to communicate with one another. The time on the clock may be met with a bit more of a sense of urgency than in any draft held in the league’s history.
To refresh everyone’s memory, Round 1 will be held April 23 with the Cincinnati Bengals going on the clock at 8 p.m. On April 24, the time between picks will drop from 10 minutes down to five as teams pick in Rounds 2-3. Starting at noon April 25, teams will make their selections in Rounds 4-7.
The only downside for the Ravens being as good as they were in 2019 is not selecting in the first round until No. 28. But due a third-round compensation pick and three trades by GM Eric DeCosta, the Ravens will have a total of nine picks to make. They could also use a couple to play some form of chess to better their overall haul.
The Ravens will start the draft with No. 28 in the first, and then they have Nos. 55 and 60 in the second round. They’ll have two picks in the third round (Nos. 92 and 106), and in the fourth, they’ll also have multiple picks (Nos. 129 and 143). The Ravens currently own one pick in the fifth round (No. 170) and another solo pick in the seventh (No. 225).
Even with as aggressive as DeCosta is capable of being, one wonders if the logistics may tamp down trades as teams deal with a brave new technology world with very little practice time. If not for the possibility of a difficult time with communications, it would not be surprising to see DeCosta use that glut in Rounds 3, 4 and 5 to move up in the second or third round to get a player they really want.
My product knowledge of the players has suffered throughout the years, but with so much good stuff all around, it’s not difficult to take an understanding of the Ravens’ basic needs and cull who might make the most sense.
Clearly, the Ravens have a few holes to fill. But the most glaring to me by a country mile is the hole along the offensive line left by perennial All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda. While his retirement is a bummer for DeCosta and Co., it was not altogether unexpected, and in this day and age, it was the smart time to get out from Yanda’s perspective.
Additionally, starting center Matt Skura is uncertain to be ready when the season opens after a complicated knee surgery. The club also let the versatile James Hurst walk, electing to save that money.
One of the biggest needs on the club going into the offseason was improving the pass rush and the defensive line’s play against the run. Adding Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to the defensive line helps. And while Matthew Judon was franchise-tagged, it’s not 100 percent certain he’ll be back — which may affect how much of a need DeCosta sees the rush as.
Other needs include linebacker and wide receiver. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Ravens get an inside and outside ‘backer in this draft. And since this is a deep draft for receivers, it also wouldn’t shock anyone if they got two of those.
After that, safety, while not a position of need today, could be one soon enough with Earl Thomas III coming in at 31 years of age. After trading from a surplus of tight ends, with former No. 1 pick Hayden Hurst going to Atlanta, it might make sense to add to their depth there as well.
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio is a wise draft watcher, and he thinks the Ravens will get a running back fairly early. While I am sure old pal Sal doesn’t make stuff up, I find that a bit of a head-scratcher with Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill on the roster. Unless they have somehow made up their mind that Ingram won’t be here in 2021, running back is not an itch I think the Ravens scratch.
So, that leaves reading the tea leaves in Round 1. I won’t be shocked by an athlete on defense with the No. 1 pick, but I still say Yanda’s absence in the most pressing need. I will also agree with our own Ken Zalis and The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec in thinking Michigan center Cesar Ruiz will be there for the Ravens at 28 and that his monster size and durability may just be the combination to beckon DeCosta to call in that name to the commissioner.
I won’t hazard a guess as to whether the Ravens see him as their lockdown center for the next 8-10 years or as Yanda’s replacement at right guard. His versatility is just one more added bonus.
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