Draft grades don’t mean much a year after the draft, and they mean even less only days after the draft. But with the Ravens eyeing a return to the playoffs, and preparing to build a roster around the looming megadeal for quarterback Lamar Jackson, it was hard not to be impressed not only by the quantity of the 2022 draft class they assembled (11 players) but also the quality.
From Thursday to Saturday, the Ravens earned high marks. In Owings Mills, there were high hopes. “I think it was a great weekend for us,” general manager Eric DeCosta said after the Ravens’ final pick Saturday.
It was better for some than for others. Here’s a look at whom the draft helped and whom it hurt.
Mike Macdonald: In the three-plus months since he was hired away from Michigan, the Ravens have spent big on their defense. In free agency, they signed safety Marcus Williams and defensive tackle Michael Pierce to multiyear deals and re-signed starting defensive end Calais Campbell and inside linebacker Josh Bynes. In the draft, they landed an instant-impact safety (Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton), a potential Pro Bowl edge rusher (Michigan’s David Ojabo) and an interior pass-rushing presence (Connecticut’s Travis Jones), plus much-needed cornerback depth.
There are still weaknesses to address at inside and outside linebacker, but Macdonald should enter training camp with at least an elite safety group. His predecessor, Don “Wink” Martindale, set a high bar in his first three years as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator before a parade of injuries upended the 2021 season. With better health, Macdonald’s defense has the makings of another top-10 unit.
Greg Roman: The Ravens’ offensive coordinator doesn’t need a squadron of elite wide receivers to be happy. Just give him a cohesive offensive line, a group of productive tight ends and a quarterback as talented as Jackson, and Roman should find his comfort zone. Even without top wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, traded away Thursday night to the Arizona Cardinals, the Ravens have more of the kind of personnel that Roman can optimize better than most.
Top center prospect Tyler Linderbaum, who thrived in Iowa’s zone-running schemes, will diversify a running game that struggled at times last season. Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele has the power to displace edge defenders as effectively as offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. did in Baltimore. And Arizona State’s Charlie Kolar and Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely give Jackson two more intriguing tight ends to target over the middle. Roman likes an offense that can get “medieval” on opponents, and the Ravens’ 2022 offense now appears far better suited for that.
Patrick Queen: The third-year inside linebacker had to shoot down rumors that he was on the move Friday afternoon (“stop playing,” he tweeted), but that proved unnecessary by Saturday afternoon. In a defense-heavy draft, the Ravens addressed every position but inside linebacker. Queen and Bynes remain the favorites to start at weak-side linebacker and middle linebacker next season, respectively.
Queen’s relationship with Macdonald, his former inside linebackers coach, should help him as he seeks greater consistency. The 2020 first-round pick’s next step: establishing himself as a three-down defender. If Queen’s struggles in coverage continue, the Ravens could drop Hamilton or safety Chuck Clark into the box on passing downs.
Returning wide receivers: On the draft’s first night, the Ravens traded away Brown. On the draft’s final day, they were a pick away from drafting a wide receiver in the fourth round, only to add a second tight end, Likely, after the Pittsburgh Steelers picked Memphis’ Calvin Austin III.
“We like our receivers,” DeCosta said after the draft. Now, barring a significant free-agent addition, they should get every opportunity to show why. Rashod Bateman was already projected to start after a promising rookie year, but the Ravens will need Devin Duvernay (272 receiving yards in 2021), James Proche II (202 yards) and Tylan Wallace (23 yards) to step up. Even if Roman prefers heavier personnel packages this year, there should be plenty of snaps and targets to go around.
Small schools: Last year, amid the uncertainty of a coronavirus-warped college football season, Ravens officials decided to primarily target prospects from Power Five conference teams. Four of their eight picks played in the Big Ten. Three others came from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference. Defensive back Brandon Stephens was the lone exception — and he’d started his career at UCLA before finishing it at American Athletic Conference member Southern Methodist.
This year, the Ravens showed a greater willingness to bet on players from off the beaten path. In the third round, they took Jones, a star for the Huskies, formerly AAC pushovers who now compete as independents. In the fourth, they drafted Likely, who’d dominated in the Sun Belt Conference, and Houston cornerback Damarion Williams, another AAC standout.
Sam Koch: Fourth-round pick Jordan Stout, the highest-drafted punter in a decade (No. 130 overall), reminds Ravens officials of Koch — his holding ability, his efficiency, his leg strength, his accuracy. The Penn State product is also cheaper than the 39-year-old Koch; the Ravens’ longest-tenured player has the third-highest salary cap hit among punters this season ($3.2 million).
Coach John Harbaugh said Saturday that Stout will learn from Koch in Baltimore, and “then we’ll just see where it goes.” But the writing seems to be on the wall. “If you have a chance to fix a position for 10 years with a punter about to be 40,” DeCosta told NBC Sports on Saturday, “you’ve got to consider that strongly.”
Chuck Clark: Clark hasn’t missed a defensive snap over the past two seasons. He’s a locker room leader and a trusted on-field communicator. He’s on a team-friendly deal through 2023. Teammates turned his blunt cameo at the Ravens’ Week 18 postgame news conference — “As respectfully as I can say as possible, just watch how we bounce back” — into a rallying cry for this offseason.
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Now, though, Clark’s role in Baltimore is uncertain. With the arrival of Williams and Hamilton, along with Brandon Stephens’ flexibility as a nickel safety, how many snaps are there for Clark? Even if he remains a starter, Clark likely won’t play every down and, as a result, will have to give up the green dot as the defense’s signal-caller.
Justice Hill: The Ravens will keep at least three running backs on their season-opening roster, and the uncertain recovery timetables for J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards could open a spot for Hill. But the fourth-year speedster is coming back from his own season-ending injury, a torn Achilles tendon. After three quiet seasons, sixth-round pick Tyler Badie, along with returners Ty’Son Williams and Nate McCrary, should put up a fight on the roster bubble.
Hill’s best hopes could lie with his special teams ability. He finished sixth on the team in special teams snaps in 2020, impressing with his ability on coverage units. But if Hill’s rehabilitation limits his speed and acceleration, he could struggle to stand out.
Ja’Wuan James: The Ravens learned last year that you can never have too many competent tackles. But even if James returns to full strength — he’s appeared in just three games since 2019 and missed last season with a torn Achilles tendon — he could be the odd man out in a somewhat stabilized tackle room.
The Ravens remain hopeful that left tackle Ronnie Stanley, after two straight season-ending ankle injuries, will be ready for the 2022 opener. Patrick Mekari, who stepped in last season as a swing tackle, can now return to his reserve role, with Linderbaum expected to start at center and Morgan Moses at right tackle. Faalele’s roster spot is secure, barring a serious injury. With Tyre Phillips’ experience at tackle, James could become expendable.
Ravens’ downfield passing: Over the Ravens’ first eight games last year, Brown’s average target depth was 14.5 yards downfield. Jackson’s stretch of absences ultimately hurt Brown’s involvement downfield — his average depth of target by season’s end was down to 11.5 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — but his role over those first two months was crucial. Only six wide receivers finished above 14.5 air yards per target last season.
Now the Ravens will have to find a new deep threat (or two) for their array of play-action drop-backs. Duvernay has great speed and dynamic after-the-catch ability, but he didn’t have a catch longer than 39 yards as a rookie or 21 yards last season. Bateman can separate from cornerbacks on vertical routes, but he won’t get the same attention from safeties that Brown did. Proche and Wallace, meanwhile, project more as possession receivers.