OWINGS MILLS – The NFL remains in a bizarre state today due to a lockout that has halted nearly all league business while a nasty labor dispute unfolds.
It has been nearly a quarter-century since the last work stoppage, and this marks the first time since the launch of free agency that the draft will take place prior to the veteran signing period.
Although nothing else is normal, the Baltimore Ravens have no plans to alter their traditional, best player available approach to the draft.
The Ravens’ preferred method is to have all of their most pressing roster needs addressed before the draft begins. Last year, they acquired Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin via a trade in March.
"It was good to have Anquan on board before we drafted last year," general manager Ozzie Newsome said Tuesday during a draft press luncheon at the Ravens’ training complex. "Did that take some pressure off of us trying to get a receiver? Yes, it did. I still think at the end of the day what we try to do is look at our board and try to get players to come into Baltimore that are going to be able to contribute early. Not having free agency, I don’t think it has really changed our mindset. We haven’t redirected the board in one way or the other. We’ll let it play itself out."
Having made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the Ravens aren’t exactly hurting.
However, they do have some positions that could use bolstering.
The Ravens had a franchise-low for sacks last season. Their pass rush could get addressed with prospects such as defensive end Cameron Heyward (Ohio State), defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple), outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (UCLA) or defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue).
It’s a rich draft for defensive linemen and hybrid outside linebackers who can play defensive end in a 4-3 or stand up in a 3-4 scheme.
Enigmatic Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith has visited the Ravens and he represents the prototypical big shutdown cornerback the team currently lacks.
If the Ravens can acquire a left tackle, they could shift Michael Oher back to his natural right tackle spot. Nate Solder (Colorado), Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) and Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) are among the candidates.
The Ravens could also use an inside linebacker such as Illinois’ Martez Wilson or Casey Matthews, the Oregon standout who’s the younger brother of Green Bay Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews.
"We probably have more needs than non-needs, which makes the drafting decision easy, because if you need everything, you can draft anything," Ravens Director of Player Personnel Eric DeCosta said. "If you really go through a piece of paper and jot down what we don’t need it’s going to be a small list. I think we have the flexibility to just draft the best player."
"We haven’t really changed our philosophy on drafting players. We’re just going to rank the board. Need always comes into it. If there’s a huge gap in talent, then we’re not going to draft the non-need player. It’s a sliding scale."
The Ravens could also use a young downfield threat to bolster their wide receiver corps, which is primarily made up of veterans Boldin and Derrick Mason and unproven David Reed. The Ravens aren’t expected to bring back veterans T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth, who are free agents.
Newsome rarely acknowledges what he’s going to do in the draft, but emphasized that the team is likely to use one of its nine draft selections on a receiver.
Drafting 26th overall in the first round, the Ravens are considered unlikely to address the position right away.
"We’ve done a good job of stacking the board with some guys that have some size, some guys have some unique quickness about them and some guys that have some flat-out speed," Newsome said. "It’s a very good board for receivers this year. I do foresee, unless something changes, of those nine picks we have, probably one of them will be a receiver."
The Ravens are known for swapping picks, maneuvering through trades to acquire players.
For three consecutive drafts, they’ve either gone up or down in the first round.
"I could not put a percentage on what the likelihood of a trade is going to be," Newsome said. "The thing I’ve learned from the beginning is if you’re picking 26, you’d better have 26 players. You might not get the opportunity to trade up. So, you better have that 26th guy who you think can come in and contribute.
"Is there going to be a lot of trades? I don’t know. Is there going to be no trades? We don’t know that. Some people are saying that people will try to get back into the bottom of the first, top of the second to grab their quarterback. I can’t answer that. When the phone rings, we’ll answer it."
Since there wasn’t a free agency period or offseason programs to divert teams’ focus, they’ve had extra time to study the college players.
"I think each and every team will probably be as prepared for this draft than they will ever be because of that situation," Newsome said. "That’s all you’ve been able to do."