As the Ravens waited in their Owings Mills, Md., draft war room April 30, watching player after player come off the board during a four-hour wait to make a pick, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh admits he was “being a little bit of a nervous Nelly.”
There was an offensive lineman that Harbaugh had loved “for months,” general manager Eric DeCosta said, viewed as an ideal fit for the Ravens’ system. But would he make it all the way to the Ravens late in the third round, when the Ravens were slated to make their first pick of the night? Harbaugh wanted DeCosta to trade up.
Instead, DeCosta “staved off the temptation,” Harbaugh said. “We held tight and got our guy,” selecting Georgia guard Ben Cleveland at No. 94 overall. The pick prompted a visible celebration in the war room caught on network cameras.
“At the start of the day, if you had told us that we would have gotten Ben Cleveland, we’d have turned [the card] in right then and there,” DeCosta said.
Ten picks later, the Ravens selected SMU defensive back Brandon Stephens, bolstering their secondary with a big, physical player who began his collegiate career as a UCLA running back.
After filling two key areas of need in the first round by selecting Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Penn State edge rusher Odafe Oweh, the Ravens checked off another primary need and found a potential starting left guard in Cleveland, a hulking 6-foot-6, 357-pounder described by DeCosta as a “big, physical road-grading offensive lineman … who really fits our identity.”
But it was, admittedly, a long, at times agonizing wait to get there. After trading Orlando Brown Jr. and their second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens had to wait roughly four hours and watch more than 60 players come off the board before they finally were on the clock late in the third round, the price for grabbing an additional first-round pick in the Brown trade.
But DeCosta said the wait wasn’t as bad as in 2019, when they also were without a second-round pick, because, this time, the Ravens had already made two-first round picks.
“Every time I’d get frustrated, I’d think, ‘We got two players yesterday,'” DeCosta said.
The interior of the offensive line was considered a major area of need this offseason, with questions at both right guard and center. The Ravens signed free agent Kevin Zeitler to fill the right guard spot, but three different players started at center last year, with no one playing their way into a presumptive starting role in 2021.
Bradley Bozeman, a two-year starter at left guard, played center at Alabama, and he is expected to move to center this year. That would create a vacancy at left guard, and Cleveland figures to immediately compete for that job.
“I think we have a pretty well-defined, clear understanding of what we want to be on offense,” Harbaugh said, “so you look for players that fit … what you want to be. He fits that.
“This is a big, strong, powerful guy that likes to rough people up,” he added. “That’s how we want to play.”
The Ravens also praise the physical nature of Stephens (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), who began his collegiate career as a running back at UCLA before moving to SMU primarily because he wanted to play defensive back.
He had 43 tackles, 10 pass breakups and one interception this season, and he had a team-high 12 pass breakups in 2019, his first season at SMU.
“He’s a big, physical, athletic kid [who] got his hands on a lot of balls,” said Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz.
DeCosta noted that Stephens played some cornerback and some safety at SMU and has “a lot of upside potential.”
The NFL Draft continues May 1 with the final four rounds, and barring any trades, the Ravens are scheduled to make five more picks, with two each in the fourth and fifth rounds and one in the sixth.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Georgia and SMU Athletics