With the 17th overall pick of this year's draft, the Baltimore Ravens have a shot at finding an immediate starter, an impact player and someone who can end a once unthinkable streak.
Widely regarded as the gold standard in digging up the best talent in college football, the Ravens have gone five drafts without selecting a Pro Bowl player. There have been 47 players drafted by the Ravens since their last Pro Bowl player, running back Ray Rice in 2008.
No one could have envisioned such a stretch from the Ravens, who have drafted the likes of Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Suggs. In the franchise's first 13 drafts, the Ravens selected 19 Pro Bowl players, which was tied with the New England Patriots for the most during that period. Now, the Ravens are one of four teams who have failed to select a Pro Bowl player since 2009, and the others (Jaguars, Jets and Raiders) have all fired their general managers during that time.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the NFL who would suggest Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and assistant general manager Eric DeCosta have lost their touch. It's just a startling trend for a franchise that has not only drafted NFL defensive and offensive players of the year but potentially three Hall of Fame ones.
"We don't care about Pro Bowls," DeCosta said this week. "We care about Super Bowls."
It's difficult to criticize the Ravens when they put it that way. In 2012, the Ravens won their second Super Bowl with 39 homegrown players on their 53-man roster. In comparison, the Seahawks won the championship three months ago with 29 players who were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted rookies.
While the Ravens haven't landed all-star players lately, the fact that they have been a perennial playoff team shows they've been able to add productive starters such as offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Arthur Jones linebacker Courtney Upshaw and wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Ravens aren't raising the Lombardi Trophy in 2012 without contributions from those players.
The Ravens, though, realize their recent drafts haven't reached their usual level of excellence. In their last five, there are more players who are no longer with the team (14) than who became starters (11). An argument could be made that the Ravens' top rookies the past two years were undrafted (kicker Justin Tucker and wide receiver Marlon Brown).
So, why haven't the Ravens' drafts been as flashy? They are a victim of their own success. Being a playoff team every season means you draft at the bottom of each round.
From 2009 to 2013, the Ravens entered the draft with these first-round picks: No. 26, No. 25, No. 26, No. 29 and No. 32. It's difficult to pick a Pro Bowl player at this point in the first round. Since 2009, only four Pro Bowl players have been drafted after pick No. 25 in the first round. This shows the Ravens aren't the only ones who aren't finding the flashy players in this area of the first round.
"When you pick higher in the draft, you have a greater chance of hitting a home run," DeCosta said. "When you're picking lower, you're going hit a lot of singles and doubles. A lot of our top picks were guys who were the fourth pick in the draft, the sixth pick in the draft. You don't want to pick up there. The challenge is when you do, you have to nail it. You have to find one of those impact guys. For us, we want guys who contribute, they're good citizens and play right away."
There have been other factors as well. In 2009, the Ravens could've ended up with linebacker Clay Matthews and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer with their top two picks instead of Paul Kruger and Oher. A year later, the Ravens gambled and lost when they traded out of the first round and took linebacker Sergio Kindle with their first pick. Kindle fractured his skull after falling down stairs before his first training camp and only played three games in his career.
"The process is we grade the players, and we allow the tape to give us the most information," Newsome said. "And our scouts do an unbelievable job of getting background information and bringing that to the table. What we try to do is -- I guess I learned this from the very first draft I went in by Milt Davis who had played for the Colts and was a Colt scout -- you check your ego at the door. And when you check your ego at the door and we allow all of the information to dictate how we are going to set the board, then we just pick the player that is available to us."
The player available to the Ravens this year is expected to be better than any during this five-year draft drought, just based on where they're selecting. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Ravens find themselves in the middle of the first round. Pro Bowl players who were taken in this range include: defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Brian Cushing and offensive tackle Branden Albert.
"I'm excited because I see the quality of player that we can get," DeCosta said. "We haven't seen that type of player in a few years. It's exciting. We just can't miss the pick. We've got to nail the pick."