The course of a fledgling franchise was changed 20 drafts ago when the Baltimore Ravens selected linebacker Ray Lewis.
On this anniversary, the Ravens should remember to send the Detroit Lions a thank you card.
In 1996, the Ravens had Reggie Brown rated ahead of Lewis and they would have selected the Texas A&M linebacker at No. 26 if he was there, according to Phil Savage, an NFL Insider for ESPN who was Baltimore’s director of college scouting at that time. Luckily for the Ravens, the Lions traded up in the first round to choose Brown at No. 17 and the rest is NFL history.
"That made Ray the last linebacker that we even would've even considered at No. 26," Savage said. "He was kind of the last man standing."
Over those next 17 seasons, Lewis wreaked havoc on running backs and quarterbacks alike, emerged as the centerpiece of a history-making defense and led the Ravens to two Super Bowls. Brown played only two seasons before suffering a career-ending spinal cord injury in the 1997 regular-season finale.
Can anyone imagine Lewis not wearing No. 52 for the Ravens? No bone-rattling hits. No gyrating pre-game dance. And definitely no statue in front of M&T Bank Stadium.
There was a time during the draft evaluation period two decades ago when the Ravens didn’t rank Lewis among the marquee prospects. Under the system of Bill Belichick, who coached the Browns in 1995 before their move to Baltimore, Lewis was considered a potential starter but was pegged as a second- or third-round pick because he didn’t meet the height requirement.
"By the letter of the law, he was outside the first round," Savage said.
When the franchise relocated and Belichick was fired, Ozzie Newsome and Savage decided to bump up prospects when scouts and coaches vouched for them. The Ravens were impressed by Lewis' productivity and instincts, but his stock rose with the Ravens when he won over linebackers coach Maxie Baughan in a workout.
Still, if Brown had been on the board, the Ravens would have taken him over Lewis.
"That's why you never know," Savage said.
The Ravens' 1996 draft class, their first one as a relocated franchise, is the most talked about in team history. In addition to landing Ray Lewis, the Ravens selected Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden with the No. 4 overall pick. Newsome and Savage chose Ogden even though the team already had a starting left tackle and owner Art Modell preferred running back Lawrence Phillips.
"That was the very foundations of a lot of people's careers," Savage said. "If it goes Lawrence Phillips and Reggie Brown, I'm probably not here talking to you. I don't know what I would be doing but it wouldn't be football."
Thursday night could mark the first time the Ravens draft a player at No. 26 since Lewis. The Ravens can only hope they have the same fortune as 20 drafts ago.