Predicting the Pick: Defense
I’m very unsure about making my very first post at RSR one that could be so readily screen-shotted and posted against me on #OldTakesExposed in a matter of weeks, but here goes.
I want you to keep two quotes in mind as you read this piece, firstly from Eric DeCosta at this year’s pre-draft press conference:
“One of the things that really benefits us is that I think our coaches and scouts are very aligned on the type of qualities we want at that position. I think we’ve been blessed to have been in the same scheme, although the scheme has changed slightly over the years, we know what an outside linebacker looks like, and I think our coaches do a great job of developing those type of players.”
And secondly a quote that’s been attributed to many over the years, from renowned psychologists to Mark Twain, but one that the Ravens have referred to in the past:
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” (In this context, you normally see behavior swapped out for performance)
Take DeCosta’s quote, put it together with the second quote and our knowledge that the Ravens do like to see certain behavior or performance in their draft selections’ history, and we are provided with an opportunity to be more scientific about who the Ravens might take in this year’s upcoming draft on defense.
The main takeaway, is that the Ravens do not like to project certain qualities that they know are important for their defense. Their selections on that side of the ball are littered with telling breadcrumbs that we can follow to see who they might favor in this year’s draft.
Don’t panic if your favorite prospect isn’t on the lists I post at the bottom of this piece, the Ravens aren’t a “Vontae Mack, no matter what” team. By that I mean, they aren’t a team that sticks dogmatically to a way of operating in spite of a really good player staring them in the face – but I think there’s a pretty good chance that the defensive players they select in this year’s draft will come from the lists below.
What I’ve done is chart every defensive player selected over the last decade or so and looked at every possible data-point I can find on each of them. We can of course go back and look at our evaluations of these players on film, but we don’t know what the Ravens are looking for in their scouting. This means that empirical evidence is more interesting for developing a pattern.
Also, Eric DeCosta is a new GM with a new philosophy, albeit influenced by Ozzie, so we do not yet have enough evidence to know if his leadership will bring a more seismic departure in terms of draft picks from the Ozzie years. There have been some differences so far but they are subtle changes rather than big shifts.
I won’t list all of the small details I’ve found that allow me to develop the list of players below but I will share some of the most significant findings.
Beginning with the Defensive Line where there are some significant discoveries to give us a sense of who might end up holding aloft Raven purple next weekend.
Firstly, and surely foremost-ly, the Ravens do not like to project a prospect’s ability to stuff the run. DeCosta said in the pre-draft press conference that stopping the run is vital to their defense and intimated that this is something they look for, this is borne out in their draft pick history.
They like to see their picks on the Defensive Line having stopped the run themselves, credited with a high number stopped near or behind the line of scrimmage. But perhaps more interestingly, given how much emphasis the Ravens place on team, and how important unselfish play is in stopping the run as a Defensive Lineman on their team, the majority of their picks have played as part of a unit that was efficient at stuffing the run.
Using Football Outsiders’ stuff rate, which measures the rate at which a defensive line stops a run for little or no gain, we can see that Justin Madubuike, Chris Wormley, Bronson Kaufusi, Willie Henry and Daylon Mack were all part of very good, if not elite defensive lines in this regard during their college careers.
There is an argument that some of this analysis could be moot as the Ravens like to get better, we saw Eric DeCosta refer to this in that same press conference. It means that there may be changes as they learn from their mistakes that make it hard to track a profile that they look for. But they’ve been getting better for longer than the past few years, so we can even draw conclusions based on this, in particular, selections on the Defensive Line offer a window into their approach.
There was a stretch in 2014 and 2015 where the Ravens took some guys, presumably because of the perceived value of those players where they acquired them, Carl Davis, Brent Urban and Timmy Jernigan, who all came from more vanilla 4-3 defenses in college. While these players had modest success, they weren’t home run hits, so we saw the Ravens adjust their philosophy.
After this little misadventure, they stopped projecting the ability to two-gap. Every selection in the past five years on the defensive line has come from a multiple defense and usually a majority-of-the-time, odd front. For me, what this shows, is that further proliferation of multiple defenses at the college level allowed the Ravens to stop attempting to project the ability to two-gap – a vital part of the Ravens run defense – in their draft picks. Earlier in the decade, there simply weren’t enough teams running a defense that allowed them to be so selective because it thinned down the potential Defensive Linemen pool too much. They no longer needed to rely on projecting the ability to do something they desperately need their linemen to be able to do.
If you know the Ravens’ draft history a little, you may know they think sacks translate to the next level. We know, and I’m sure the Ravens do too, that sacks can fluctuate year-to-year. Given that getting a sack relies so much on other external factors, as much as your own ability, pressures can be a more reliable data-point to use when evaluating production in Defensive Linemen and Edge Rushers.
The Ravens love productive Defensive Linemen and Edge Rushers in college. They look for sacks but I think more so, pressures. Defensive Linemen not playing Nose Tackle needed at least 35 pressures in a season, while Edge Rushers needed at least 40 and often had many more than this. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens view many in this class, seen as many of their best seasons – 2020 – were cut short. Will the Ravens be happy with on-pace-for-production or will they need to have seen the volume?
It’s a less clear profile at Defensive Back as the Ravens do not prioritize ball production but the Ravens selections at Safety have been remarkably consistent with players that have shown an ability to line up all over the formation and rarely players whose snaps are dominated by playing in one spot.
In other words, they don’t look for prospects who sit back, play the deep Safety spot and nothing else. They seem to value highly, unsurprisingly given their defense, versatility. More than that, they don’t project the ability to be versatile. To be a Raven you likely had to play significant snaps in your career both in the box, covering the slot, and at deep Safety.
At Corner, they rarely take a prospect who hasn’t played the majority of their career outside. Even guys they target to potentially play the nickel held up outside in college. Though this likely says more about the college talent level than the Ravens preferences. What is clear about Cornerbacks is that the Ravens do not project the ability to tackle. This is not something coveted by every team in the NFL, so it does eliminate a number of corners in this class from potential selection by the Ravens as they have a pretty reliable floor in terms of tackle production.
Corners need to have made at least 40 tackles in a season, while this may say more about the scheme we prefer to take players from, it’s still noteworthy given how unusually high that number is for a baseline on tackles for Corners in a college season. They also like to see a relatively low number of missed tackles as well as Corners who get involved in stopping the run at the line of scrimmage themselves, at a pretty regular clip. This is likely more about needing to see a body of evidence with tackling than the production itself being important, but it still eliminates a pretty hefty swathe of prospects from potentially being selected.
There isn’t any unwavering adherence to an athletic profile across defensive prospects but there are at least some clues based on the testing of their selections that allow a further depletion of the potential list of players they might be interested in. For instance, they almost exclusively look for a 4.5 seconds or better 40-yard dash performance in their Cornerbacks, with range also being important for their Safety selections in the first few rounds.
I don’t believe the Ravens start from a statistical baseline when looking at players. I do believe they evaluate all prospects on tape and what I’ve laid bare here, is simply a forming picture of what they prioritize in those evaluations. A proven ability to be unselfish when playing the run and to two-gap on the defensive line. A proven ability for a safety to be versatile to the demands of a defense that is only going to be significantly more multiple than the one he played on in college. These are things they surely prioritize when evaluating players and it’s been betrayed somewhat by the players they have selected over the years.
So without any further ado, you probably didn’t want to read this far down to get to this, here are some of the players I’m betting the Ravens take in this year’s draft on defense. I may miss some – I’ve shortened this list to the best fits for the profiles I’ve developed so I can’t be accused of simply making a huge list and calling myself prescient when we take from them. There are other partial fits for the profiles of a player they like that aren’t here. Hit me up on Twitter for certain players if you want to know whether they’re close or not, and why.
I haven’t included off-ball Linebackers because I either don’t think we’ll take one (Mike, Will) or because we haven’t taken enough of them in a pre-meditated move to fill that spot (Sam) to warrant creating a profile.
Defensive Line (not NT)
- Christian Barmore
- Osa Odighizuwa
- Darius Stills
- Levi Onwuzurike
- Mustafa Johnson
Some Pernell McPhee-style versatile tweeners to keep an eye on
- Carlos Basham
- Cameron Sample
Outside Linebacker (more commonly referred to as EDGE in the draft lexicon)
- Jaelan Phillips
- Gregory Rousseau
- Patrick Jones II
- Victor Dimukeje
- Tarron Jackson
- Patrick Johnson
- Hamilcar Rashed Jr.
- Rashad Weaver
- Wyatt Hubert
- Asante Samuel Jr.
- Tyson Campbell
- Ifeatu Melifonwu
- Thomas Graham Jr.
- Nate Hobbs
- Trevon Moehrig
- Jevon Holland
- Richie Grant
- Darrick Forrest
- Tyler Coyle