This is Part 1 of a three-part series examining the history of the Baltimore Ravens’ strategy and results in the NFL Draft. In this installment, the early years of the Ravens are discussed, through the 1998 draft.
Every year about this time we debate what the Ravens should do in the upcoming draft: hold onto their first round draft pick to take the best player who falls to them? Use extra picks to move up in the first round and grab a can’t-miss player? Fall back a few spots to accumulate extra picks, Bill Belichick-style?
The possibilities are seemingly endless.
However, what does history teach us when searching for the best approach?
Let’s play the “what-if” game and take a look at the moves the Ravens did and did not make throughout their draft history. We’ll count the hits and the misses. We’ll glean their strategy when it comes to maneuvering in the first round. And then we’ll decide if any lessons are to be learned when it comes to maximizing the value of first-round picks.
Lets start off in 1995, before our purple birds even existed. The events of that draft certainly had an impact on Ravens history.
Ozzie Newsome had been promoted to Director of Pro Personnel in Cleveland, so he did not have a direct hand in running the draft for the Cleveland Browns in 1995. Still, his approach to player evaluation was certainly influenced by the men tasked with the job. Those men were none other than head coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personal Mike Lombardi, who worked under Belichick.
Belichick is a notorious wheeler and dealer when it comes to managing his draft picks; one only needs to reflect on his approach in 1995 for evidence of this.
The Browns held the 26th pick of the draft. A month before the draft Belichick trades up to get the tenth pick by sending the 26th pick and all-purpose back Eric Metcalf to the Atlanta Falcons.
Metcalf has an amazing couple of seasons for the Falcons with over 1,000 receiving yards in ’95 and 1,000+ kick return yards in 1996. He later left Atlanta for the Chargers who, after one season, traded him in 1998 to the Cardinals, along with two firsts and a second rounder, so they could move up one spot and take Ryan Leaf.
Well, we all know how that trade worked out for San Diego.
Metcalf, meanwhile, was still a very productive return specialist in Arizona for one more season.
While you don’t see players traded for picks often, Metcalf was involved in two such deals. The first time was due to then-Browns owner Art Modell being broke in 1995 after his contract dispute with wide receiver Andre Rison. Of course it didn’t help that Metcalf had some brushes with the law in 1994 for carrying a loaded revolver in his car and drag racing around the Cleveland beltway against teammate Eric Turner.
Belichick was not done dealing yet in ’95. On draft day he traded that #10 pick to the 49rs in exchange for their first round selection (#30), a third and fourth round pick that year, and the 49rs first round pick in 1996.
The 49ers gave up so much to move up to the tenth pick because they were convinced that UCLA receiver J.J. Stokes was going to be the heir apparent to Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
He wasn’t. When Stokes broke his hand in 1996, an unheralded third round rookie wide-out stepped in and never gave the job back to Stokes. That receiver? Terrell Owens.
So much for moving up in the draft to take the can’t-miss player.
Belichick eventually used the 30th pick to select Craig Powell, a colossal bust of a linebacker. The third rounder became Mike Frederick, part of those bad, bad Ravens defenses during their first two years in Baltimore. Cleveland traded the fourth rounder for a fifth and sixth round pick, which yielded them no one of particular value (Mike Miller and Kenneth McDaniel).
There is a Browns website that still claims that their 1995 draft was among the worst ever in NFL history.
So far at this point, Ozzie and Belichick do not have very much to show for their dealings. Belichick shipped off an All Pro receiver/returner, moved back four spots from where he started, and had nothing back in exchange of any value, aside from that extra first rounder in 1996.
Perhaps Belichick’s decision-making during that 1995 draft, along with his surly attitude with everyone in Cleveland, had a big part in Modell’s decision to fire him after the 1995 campaign.
Had the Browns simply stayed put at 26th, they could have drafted linebacker Derrick Brooks, who went to the Bucs at pick 28. Brooks – who would go on to play 14 seasons, be selected to 11 Pro Bowls, and win a Super Bowl in Tampa – certainly would have filled an inside linebacking need for the soon-to-be Ravens.
Did I mention that extra pick in 1996 the Browns got from San Francisco? With the 26th pick the now-Ravens take Ray Lewis.
With the fourth pick that year, their own, the Ravens stayed put, passed on bust running back Lawrence Phillips and took Jonathan Ogden — despite Modell’s desire to make the first Raven a splashy skill player like Phillips. Modell also fancied himself a life-coach after helping Earnest Byner, so he even took Phillips to dinner to test his own notions that he could get through to the guy. One year and two flights of stairs later, Modell had his answer. Phillips would have been a disaster pick, while Ogden put together a Hall of Fame career in Baltimore at left tackle.
The Ravens again held the fourth pick. All three teams ahead of them, the Jets, Falcons and Saints, traded down. The Ravens stood pat and took Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware. None of the teams trading out got as much value as the three players they could have taken instead. The closest was the Jets, who passed on offensive tackle Orlando Pace at the top of the draft and ended up with linebacker James Farrior with the sixth pick.
Boulware, shifted to outside linebacker by the Ravens, would go on play eight years in Baltimore, set the franchise record in sacks with 70, and play in four Pro Bowls.
The Ravens kept the tenth pick and used it on cornerback Duane Starks. A nice player, but a bit of a reach at ten. Had they considered assembling picks to move up ahead of the fourth pick, a player they could have targeted instead would have been Charles Woodson. Years later Phil Savage would refer to Woodson as the highest-rated college player ever in the history of Ravens draft evaluations.
Then again, we just looked at the price San Diego paid to move from three to two to get Leaf in this same draft. So who knows what the asking price would have been for the Ravens to move from ten to three, if they had been so inclined?
Starks was a key piece of the 2000 Super Bowl team, so while he may have been a bit overvalued with the tenth overall pick, the Ravens got very good value from him.