General manager Eric DeCosta set a new goal heading into an NFL draft, where the Ravens must infuse more young talent into the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
“Hopefully we can build our offense to the point where -- as we say, to be undefendable,” DeCosta said at the team’s pre-draft news conference.
While it's incredibly bold, it was only nine months ago that coach John Harbaugh was mocked for predicting the Ravens would usher a new era of offense. Baltimore backed that up by scoring a league-high 30.4 points on offense behind Jackson, the unanimous NFL Most Valuable Player.
To keep lighting up the scoreboard, this has the makings of being a more offense-heavy draft than one would expect from a team returning 10 starters on that side of the ball. This offseason, the Ravens lost two key contributors -- Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired and tight end Hayden Hurst was traded to Atlanta -- and they didn’t add much in free agency outside of re-signing reserve wide receivers Chris Moore and De’Anthony Thomas.
Even though Baltimore might use an early pick on a pass-rusher or inside linebacker, the storyline of the Ravens’ 2020 draft should be adding more difference-makers around Jackson. Baltimore can realistically come out of this draft with a wide receiver or two, a couple of offensive linemen (perhaps someone who can compete at Yanda’s old spot at right guard), a running back and a tight end.
Harbaugh has talked about the need for this offense to evolve, and recent history shows it will be hard for the Ravens to repeat last season’s success unless they upgrade through the draft, which has produced five offensive starters for them the past two years. The highest-scoring offenses in the past five years in the NFL have fallen to fifth or worse the following year. Nine of the past 10 highest-scoring offenses have scored fewer points the next season. Over past 10 seasons, the average drop-off for the highest-scoring offense has been 5.76 points.
Now, imagine how much more electric the Ravens could be with Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins pulling in a contested Jackson pass in the end zone or Georgia running back D’Andre Swift breaking free for a 50-yard score. Picture how much more powerful Baltimore can become with an offensive lineman like Houston’s Josh Jones or Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz delivering key blocks.
With the draft two weeks away, here are three key areas on offense where the Ravens could use an early-round pick:
Wide receiver: Throughout the offseason, the Ravens haven't expressed any urgency when talking about wide receivers, even after their wide receiver group produced the fewest yards (1,419) since the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars. In free agency, Baltimore passed on Emmanuel Sanders and Robby Anderson. As far as the draft, team officials emphasize the depth of the position -- “prolific,” is how DeCosta described it -- as a reason this might not be Baltimore's top pick.
Baltimore is hopeful that Marquise Brown will be more consistent a year removed from foot surgery and third-round pick Miles Boykin will make a big jump in his second season. But the Ravens will grab a wide receiver at some point in the draft, and it could come in the first round depending on how it unfolds.
According to ESPN Stats & Information's NFL Draft Predictor, the most likely pick for Higgins, a big target receiver who became the only Clemson player to ever record 10 touchdown catches in consecutive seasons, is at the Ravens’ No. 28 spot. Other possibilities include LSU’s Justin Jefferson (if he slips), Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, Baylor’s Denzel Mims and Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr.
"This happens to be a wide receiver class with a lot of really good players, and if we're on the clock and we think that guy is the best player, we'll probably pick him,” DeCosta said. "I know our scouts have found some guys they're excited about at the wideout position. So, we'll just see how it falls.”
Interior offensive line: One of the NFL’s top offensive lines from last year has some question marks at right guard (Yanda retirement) and center (Matt Skura is still recovering from significant knee surgery). The Ravens have in-house options from last year’s rookie class to fill those voids in guard Ben Powers and center Patrick Mekari.
Last season's entire starting offensive line was homegrown. Baltimore has typically found effective blockers late in the draft or with undrafted prospects. The Ravens have selected only one offensive lineman (Ronnie Stanley) in the first two rounds since winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
But Harbaugh made it clear that the offensive line is a priority in this year’s draft. First-round prospects include Jones and USC’s Austin Jackson, two college tackles who could slide inside, and Ruiz, the draft’s top-ranked center and a three-year starter under John Harbaugh’s brother Jim at Michigan.
“We’re going to have to really do a great job there,” Harbaugh said. "That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s probably job [number one or two]. We’ve got to make sure that we do a great job of making sure the interior offensive line is all set. ... We’ve got to look at all the players, try to find the best fits."
Running back: To many, this seems like a long shot after the Ravens set an NFL record for most rushing yards in a single season and return their top three running backs. But Mark Ingram II turns 31 by the end of this season, Gus Edwards is an unrestricted free agent next offseason and Justice Hill looked more like a change-of-pace back than a feature back.
The only running back with a greater than 50% chance of going in the first round is Swift, according to ESPNs’ Draft Predictor. In his three seasons at Georgia, no running back averaged more scrimmage yards per touch than Swift (6.9). Taking the draft’s top running back with its first pick would give Baltimore its own set of triplets in Jackson, Brown and Swift for years to come.
"We feel like we have a really good group of running backs on our team, and it'll just basically be who's available when we pick,” DeCosta said. "There are certainly running backs all throughout the draft in each round -- first round all the way through the seventh round -- guys that we think have the opportunity to come in and help us be the best team we can be, and we'll look at that.”