OWINGS MILLS – Football always begins in the trenches, the brutal battleground where sheer will, power, speed, bulk and grit reign supreme. Conquer the line of scrimmage often enough, and the outcome of the game is usually decided.
The NFL draft is about to pay homage to that gridiron truism.
A rich class of defensive tackles, defensive ends and hybrid outside linebacker-rush ends are expected to dominate the first round Thursday night.
Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta projects as many as 13 to 14 defensive line types going off the board in the first round.
And the Ravens’ pressing need to generate a more dangerous pass rush matches up well with the meat of this draft.
"It’s a really deep draft in terms of defensive linemen," Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "There’s a lot of different variety of guys. You have your nose tackles, your defensive tackles and then your defensive ends and pass rushers, 3-4 guys, projections.
"From a talent standpoint, it’s to each your own. I think the 4-3 teams are going to love some guys more. The 3-4 teams are going to look at those undersized ends more, but it’s a really strong draft. I would not be surprised to see a lot of those names that are being projected right now in the top 32, 35 picks to jump off the board."
Last season, the Ravens’ pass rush regressed from stalwart to practically anemic.
They recorded only 27 sacks, the fewest in franchise history.
Outside of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ 11 sacks and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s 5 ½ sacks, the pass rush was practically nonexistent.
The Ravens are expected to try to solve that problem through the draft.
They had most of the top defensive linemen in for visits, conducted private workouts or interviewed them at the NFL scouting combine.
While Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn, Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan will probably be drafted before the Ravens are on the clock with the 26th overall pick, general manager Ozzie Newsome will likely still have plenty of intriguing players to choose from.
That includes UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, Temple defensive tackle-end Muhammad Wilkerson, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Arizona outside linebacker-defensive end Brooks Reed, Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston and Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard.
They could also possibly acquire one of those players by trading back and acquiring extra picks.
"Baltimore is pretty good at moving around the board, especially when they can move down," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "And it wouldn’t surprise me again if they were able to move down. Do they want a five-technique type of guy like a Cam Jordan or Cam Heyward? Probably not. They’re looking for a pure pass rusher.
"That rush linebacker position, Ayers makes a lot of sense there. After that, I’m not a Justin Houston guy and it’s probably early for Brooks Reed. I still think they’re a logical trade-down candidate. They need a defensive end. They need a Jordan or a Wilkerson or a Heyward, and they need someone that can push the pocket. If they have to stick at 26, I think the first logical move for them is a defensive end."
It’s no secret that the Ravens have a lot of respect for Heyward, the son of the late, bullish former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.
Heyward was the Buckeyes’ team captain, a four-year starter and an All-Big Ten Conference selection who finished his career with 157 tackles, 34 for losses and 14 ½ sacks.
His numbers were down a bit last season when he had 48 tackles, 13 for losses and 3 ½ sacks, but he faced constant double-team blocking.
He has recovered from elbow surgery. Heyward met with Ravens coach John Harbaugh at the combine.
"Toughness and durability are the biggest things about him," Hortiz said. "He tears the elbow in the Sugar Bowl and he misses one play. You see him hurt the elbow and he didn’t even know he tore it. He knew he hurt it. He went out and played after the injury. It’s second-and-two, tackle for a loss, third-and-one, tackle for a loss, third-and-seven, sack.
"He’s a football player. He’s not flashy. He kind of makes plays and grinds and fights and works hard at it. He’s just a good football player. He’s tough and he plays tough."
Like former Ravens defensive lineman Dwan Edwards, Heyward isn’t the most explosive pass rusher.
He’s highly regarded for his positional flexibility and ability to anchor against big offensive tackles.
"I’m 295 pounds now and I can add weight or lose a couple pounds," Heyward told 24×7. "That helps me to be able to play a lot of positions, it helps me being physical. One of my advantages is going against the guard and using my speed or being strong enough to line up against the tackles. I think those are the keys to my game at the next level. I have to continue to improve on my counter moves. I think my bull rush is my No. 1 move. I use my rip move. I’m trying to work on my speed. I have a lot of trust in myself.
"You can see that I’m not satisfied just being Ironhead’s son. I want to be the No. 1 guy. I have all the goals in mind. I have to elevate my game. Everybody’s expecting a lot out of me. I want to show people I can play at the next level. If they draft you in the first round, they’re not expecting you to sit on the bench. I’m a very humble and accountable guy that you can rely on in critical situations to do the right thing. My coaches prepared us for critical, adverse situations. I pride myself on making the big play at big times."
Ayers visited the Ravens along with Quinn, Sheard and Wilkerson.
And he has drawn favorable comparisons to Suggs.
Ayers improved his 40-yard dash significantly at his Pro Day workout from the combine with clockings in the 4.69 to low 4.7 range. Ayers ran a 4.84 at the combine, which is nearly identical to what Suggs ran coming out of Arizona State.
The 6-foot-3, 254-pound all-around linebacker has excellent film, but doesn’t test off the charts.
As a sophomore, Ayers recorded 14 1/2 tackles for losses, six sacks and four interceptions as he returned two for touchdowns and two forced fumbles with one returned for a score.
"The guy that I think is kind of a Suggs-like player in this draft is Akeem Ayers," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. "Even though he wasn’t as productive as Suggs was at Arizona State, he’s a different kind of player. He’s a guy that can play in reverse, he can play the run well and also give you enough of a pass rush."
As a junior, Ayers recorded 68 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
He was voted third-team All-American, was a finalist for the Butkus Award and was named first-team All-Pac 10 Conference.
The Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Kerrigan had a meeting with Ravens outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino at Purdue.
"Ayers and Kerrigan are different guys, both versatile players," Hortiz said. "They do a lot of different things for their defense, and that projects to the NFL now."
Kerrigan has been cross-training at defensive end and outside linebacker with NFL teams displaying interest in him at both positions.
At his campus Pro Day workout, Kerrigan did positional drills and stood on his workout numbers from the NFL scouting combine.
"I did both and it went pretty well overall," Kerrigan said in a telephone interview. "I’ve really been trying to improve at linebacker stuff and fine-tune the defensive line stuff. The more you can do, the more valuable you are."
Kerrigan has been compared Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman because of his intense approach to the game.
"I’ve gotten that a number of times," said Kerrigan, who has 4.67 speed. "It’s really quite an honor, a tremendous honor. A huge part of playing football, mainly the defensive line, is being relentless."
Kerrigan was a three-year starter for the Boilermakers, a team captain and an academic All-American selection who registered 33 ½ career sacks.
Kerrigan recorded 70 tackles, 26 tackles for losses, 12 1/2 sacks and five forced fumbles last season.
"I was just really sure of myself every snap," Kerrigan said. "I had a good idea of what plays were coming and that came from watching a lot of game tape and I was able to take that to the field and have a good idea of what play was coming. That allowed me to be a little bit quicker at the start when the ball was snapped."
As a junior, Wilkerson is regarded as a rising prospect and a wild card for the Ravens’ first-round pick.
Wilkerson is regarded as one of the fastest-rising draft prospects, leaving behind the sleeper category and emerging as a first-round commodity.
"He’s a raw big guy," Hortiz said. "There’s some upside with him. There’s probably a lot of upside with a lot of defensive linemen."
The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder was a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection last season as he recorded 70 tackles, 13 for losses and 10 sacks last season and was named the Owls’ Defensive Most Valuable Player.
He visited the Ravens and also worked out defensive line coach Clarence Brooks in Philadelphia.
"Coach Harbaugh is a great guy, and it was very cool meeting Ozzie Newsome," Wilkerson said. "It was a great day for me to meet the top guys and see how they felt about me. I got a tour of the place. That’s one big weight room. It’s a tremendous defense with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. I would love to be a part of that."
Reed has worked out for Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
With long blond hair and a frenetic, relentless style of play. Reed has drawn comparisons to Green Bay Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews.
"That’s an easy comparison because he’s got the long hair and he’s flying around the field," Hortiz said.
"He’s going to be a fringe type guy in the first round. I think they’re different. Brooks is more of a stronger edge guy. Casey is more of an athletic guy. Two things they’ve got in common: long hair and they play hard."
The nearly 6-foot-3, 263-pounder recorded 47 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for losses last season.
For his career, the All-Pac 10 Conference selection registered 17 sacks.
At the combine, Reed ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 30 times. He also posted a 30 1/2 inch vertical leap and a 9-5 broad jump.
Sheard had nine sacks and four forced fumbles last season and was named Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Depending on the scheme, he could play end or outside linebacker.
He was arrested last summer for felony aggravated assault and resisting arrest after an altercation in a bar where he threw a man through a glass door. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, was ordered to apologize and pay medical bills. He was suspended from the team for two weeks as well as internal discipline.
The Ravens appear to have a good shot at having a blue-chip pass rusher fall to them, especially if there’s a run on quarterbacks and offensive tackles.