Perfect spot: Ravens find ways to hit in top half of the first round

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was recently asked whether the NFL should consider switching to an NBA-like draft lottery model to discourage teams from tanking.

"I don’t expect us to ever be in that position, so that’s just foreign to me,” DeCosta said.

DeCosta is exactly right -- selecting in this part of the first round has been foreign territory for Baltimore, which has the No. 14 overall pick in this year’s draft (Round 1 is Thursday on ESPN, ABC and ESPN App.). Over the last two decades, the Ravens have selected 16th or higher four times. Only the New England Patriots (three) have had fewer picks in the top half of the first round during that span.

What really sets Baltimore apart is how it takes advantage of the few instances when the team drafts in this prime draft location. While some of their recent draft classes have not lived up to expectations, the Ravens have a perfect track record when selecting 16th or higher since 2002, landing first-team All-Pro players every time: outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (2003), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2006), offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (2016) and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (2017).

The only two other teams that come close to Baltimore’s success rate are the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots hit on first-team All-Pro selections on two of their picks in the top half of the first round (linebacker Jerrod Mayo and defensive tackle Ty Warren), but it’s tough to project quarterback Mac Jones after one season.

The Colts landed stars in Hall of Fame pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, quarterback Andrew Luck and dominant guard Quenton Nelson, but they missed on safety Malik Hooker, whose career has been defined by injuries.

Baltimore hopes to extend this run in a draft that could see DeCosta go in several different directions. Do the Ravens look to trade up to get Oregon pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux or LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.? Do they stay at No. 14 and address the trenches with either Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis or Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning? Or do they fill a major need with Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie or Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II?

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah believes the Ravens will take Davis.

"I just can't see them passing on him if he were to get there,” said Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, "because just they collect these guys, these big, big, physical line of scrimmage players on the offensive and defensive line, the rare ones, especially it's easy to sell SEC guys in that room. That would be one that would kind of make sense to me."

If history tells the Ravens anything, it’s that selecting in the top half of the first round often comes with drama.

In 2003, the Ravens wanted to trade up to the Minnesota Vikings’ No. 7 spot and select quarterback Byron Leftwich, but they got a busy signal when trying to inform league headquarters of the deal. Baltimore eventually selected Suggs, who became the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.

In 2006, Ngata thought he was going to join the Browns because he was on the phone when Cleveland was on the clock with the No. 12 overall pick. But, in a rare intra-division trade, the Ravens moved up one spot in a deal with the Browns to grab Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

In 2016, the Ravens tried to trade up two spots to get cornerback Jalen Ramsey at No. 4 and offered the Dallas Cowboys their first-round pick (No. 6) and a fourth-rounder. But after Dallas wanted a third-round pick instead, Baltimore went with Stanley, a first-team All-Pro in 2019 before an ankle injury derailed his past two seasons.

In 2017, Baltimore attempted to leap from No. 16 to No. 11 to draft cornerback Marshon Lattimore. But the New Orleans Saints turned down Baltimore in order to select Lattimore themselves, which led the Ravens to go with Humphrey, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback.

In the four drafts since then, the Ravens have picked 25th or later in the first round. This year, Baltimore is back in the top half of the first round, where they have had a knack for finding difference-makers.

"When we’re picking 14, we don’t want the 14th best player [on your draft board],” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. "The pressure is you hope one of your top 7 falls to you."