In his 12 years at the helm, Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti has been lauded for trusting his football people.
For the past two years, he has also trusted his own fan-bred instincts. This year, that hunch could pay off.
Before each of the last two drafts, Bisciotti had expressly stated he would like to see the Ravens' pass rush revived to the point where opposing offenses had to live in fear of the purple-clad defense the way they did early in the team's history. The unit developed a reputation to the point where a
Sports Illustrated cover referred to it as the "Baltimore Bullies."
Three such players became part of the Ravens' 2016 11-player draft haul, tied for the second largest in team history and one short of the 1997 class that included 12 players.
The top pick that year was Florida State linebacker Peter Boulware, who played defensive end in college but proved his versatility by becoming a stand-up linebacker and eventually notching 70 career sacks, a franchise record until it was broken by Terrell Suggs in 2011.
This time around, the Ravens didn't spend a top-10 pick on such a player but instead weaved their way through the draft's second and third days to get a mostly unknown trio that the organization feels can infuse youth and speed into the unit as marquee rushers Suggs and Elvis Dumervil get older.
The Ravens in general -- and Bisciotti in particular -- fervently hope that second-round pick Kamalei Correa, third-rounder Bronson Kaufusi and fifth-round small-college product Matt Judon can do just that.
"[Bisciotti was] very pleased," head coach John Harbaugh said. "It was something that we had targeted throughout the draft. I think a report came out that we were looking hard at pass rushers with that [first-round] pick, and we were. … We also felt like we had picks throughout the draft that we had a chance to maybe capitalize on, and it ended up working out that way.
"So, it was just a big priority for us. Steve said it -- I don't think it was a secret -- and we were able to fill it. I'm really fired up about that. I'm really excited about these guys getting to the quarterback."
One of the most effective ways to reach the pocket is to do so from many different angles, and the newly drafted trio each come equipped with different approaches.
Kaufusi is more of a down lineman, coming out of the Brigham Young system, who can play anywhere along the front. It is Correa and Judon -- who respectively attended Boise State and Grand Valley State -- who will likely both be moving from one level to the next, getting their hands out of the dirt and moving from end to linebacker, much as Boulware did 19 years ago.
"I don't see [the transition] too much as a challenge," Correa said. "… That's just because of my work ethic. I'm going to keep working at something. And if I don't get it, I'm going to keep trying.
"I know one day that I will be a great one. I am just going to keep working until I am."
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Correa, an early entry junior who is the first Boise State player drafted by the Ravens, was on the 2015 preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi trophies.
The 42nd overall pick -- tabbed after the Ravens traded down twice in the second round -- seems to fit the badly needed playmaker mold the Ravens need, having accumulated 20 career sacks, 31.5 tackles for losses and five forced fumbles. He also proved durable, appearing in all 40 career games in which his team played.
As for third-round pick Kaufusi, he brings great size (6-foot-6, 285 pounds) to an already stout Ravens defensive line, as well as good quickness and lateral movement in tight spaces thanks to a background that includes a lot of basketball experience.
A skill set like that -- as well as a stat line that includes 26.5 sacks and a whopping 44 tackles for loss -- might have visions of the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt dancing through the heads of Ravens fans. Kaufusi certainly has Watt's hell-bent-for-leather attitude.
"[The Ravens are] getting a player that is relentless every single play," Kaufusi said. "[I am a] player that wants to make plays, not only for myself, but also for my teammates and coaches.
"I'm a dedicated player, someone who wants to be the best and is willing to put in the time and sacrifice so that I can be at my best when my best is needed."
The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Judon is someone who sacrificed the limelight at Grand Valley State but became the nation's best in 2015, notching an NCAA-high 20 sacks, regardless of level. He concluded his college career with a school-record 34 sacks, eclipsing the previous record set by NFL veteran Dan Skuta, who now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Judon opened eyes with his ability to cut quickly in space and shed blockers; he also forced eight fumbles while in college. He returned from a 2013 knee injury to notch 28.5 sacks during his final two seasons.
"Over the years, [we have] drafted a lot of small-school players, and that's a challenge, the different levels of competition," assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "But, I think in Matt's case, we've got some excellent area scouts who go in there and go to those schools, and they loved him as a player in the fall. We looked at the tape. He went to the combine and had a great workout.
"… We felt very, very good about his ability to come in and help us right away."
Through most of their two-decade history, the Ravens have been a defensive devil to opponents, one that used to carry a two-pronged pitchfork: they could smother a run game and give enemy quarterbacks little-to-no time to breathe in the pass pocket.
The run defense has held steady through the years, but thanks in part to ill-timed injuries, spotty secondary play and a declining pass rush, foes have found the going easier through the air, especially in recent years as the league has gotten more pass-happy as a whole.
After the Ravens set a franchise record with 60 sacks during a 2006 season that saw them post their best regular-season record (13-3) and earn their highest playoff seed (second), the team has exceeded 40 sacks in a season only twice. In fact, the 2015 total of 37 quarterback takedowns represented a decline of 12 from the previous campaign.
As the sacks have gone down, the number of airborne touchdowns allowed has risen commensurately. Since Harbaugh became the Ravens' head coach in 2008, Baltimore has allowed 15 or fewer touchdown passes in a season only twice.
In fact, the last three seasons have seen the Ravens yield 25, 22 and a club-record 30 passing touchdowns; the latter figure broke the previous franchise-record high of 27, set during an inaugural 1996 season that saw the team win four games.
The Ravens are now beginning their third decade coming off a similar 5-11 campaign, and restoring the pass rush -- along with the aura it can bring -- seems to have finally become a priority.
"… We added some speed," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We added some toughness. We added some size, athleticism and guys that have made some game-changing plays on the collegiate level."
And at least with this draft, they infused the roster with the type of menacing defensive players who can excite their fans -- including the one who owns the team.
Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.