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Ravens Go On The Defensive During 2017 NFL Draft

May 15, 2017
It doesn’t take a genius like John Urschel to recognize the Ravens are still smarting from the way their defense wilted late last season, most notably during the Christmas Day loss to the Steelers, which knocked Baltimore out of playoff contention.

After watching their top-ranked defense -- minus injured cornerback Jimmy Smith -- falter against the New England Patriots in Week 14 and then against the Steelers two weeks later, the Ravens made defensive upgrades their top offseason priority. The NFL Draft was a strong statement that they are all-in on making the defense the foundation of this organization once again.

The Ravens used their first four picks, and five of seven overall, to address the defense. Drafting Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey with their first pick at No. 16, the Ravens then addressed their pass rush with the next three picks, selecting Houston outside linebacker Tyus Bowser in the second round and Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley and Alabama outside linebacker Tim Williams in the third round.

The Ravens rounded out their draft class by taking San Diego State guard Nico Siragusa -- no relation to Tony -- in the fourth round, Texas A&M offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor in the fifth round and Virginia Tech safety Chuck Clark in the sixth round. 

For the second time in franchise history, and for the first time since 2001, the Ravens made no draft trades. They drafted seven players, their lowest total since 2010.

Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said a focus of this offseason "was to really work to improve the secondary and also the pass rush, two critical things. I think we have really been able to do that." 

However, it’s fair to question the apparent one-sided emphasis on the defense thus far during the offseason.

After all, it was the offense that appeared to be out of rhythm for most of last season, ranking 17th overall and 28th in rushing. The defense was ranked No. 1 overall as late as Week 14. And it was the offensive coordinator who was fired after Week 5, with little demonstrated change after the switch was made from Marc Trestman to Marty Mornhinweg.

The Ravens finished 8-8, missing the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons. They ended the season ranked seventh overall in defense, fifth against the run and ninth against the pass.

But in addition to selecting defensive players with their top four draft picks, the Ravens re-signed defensive lineman Brandon Williams to a five-year, $52.5 million deal, and signed safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr as free agents. The offense, meanwhile, lost receiver Steve Smith Sr. to retirement; tackle Rick Wagner, receiver Kamar Aiken and fullback Kyle Juszczyk as free agents; and traded center Jeremy Zuttah to the 49ers. The only offseason acquisition on offense through April was 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead.

The Ravens drew a lot of criticism for not drafting any wide receivers, given that just two receivers on the roster -- Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman -- caught more than seven passes last season. The three receivers considered the most elite in the draft were all taken in the first nine picks, well before the Ravens were on the clock at No. 16.

"Not taking a receiver … jeez, we tried to put ourselves in a position to do that. It just did not work out," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "The six other players at the point that we took them were better than the receivers that were on the board at that time."

That underscores that the Ravens stick closely to their "best player available" philosophy, and if the cards line up with the defense, so be it. In fact, the way last season ended, they probably prefer it.

In the final month of the season, Tom Brady threw for 406 yards against a Ravens secondary that lost Jimmy Smith to a season-ending ankle injury during that game, and then Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers torched the Ravens for 21 fourth-quarter points during a 31-27 Steelers win on Christmas. Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown lunged over the goal line for the game-winning score with nine seconds remaining, capping a final 10-play, 75-yard drive and eliminating the Ravens from playoff contention.

For the second time in three years, an injury to Smith badly exposed the Ravens’ lack of depth in the secondary. Newsome is out to fix that.

"When you go through a season, you just can’t have your starting 11 on offense and defense" he said. "You have to have good backups, because from week to week, guys may not be able to play, and if you have good depth, then you do not get concerned about it. Having depth at corner is huge."

The Ravens now have potential first-round bookends at cornerback in Smith and Humphrey; if Humphrey, who doesn’t turn 21 until July 8, isn’t ready to plug-and-play in September, the veteran Carr is a proven starter until Humphrey is ready. Promising second-year corner Tavon Young, undersized on the outside at 5-foot-9, can slide inside to the nickel/slot corner position. And there are backups to the backups. In short, it’s a deeper group that should be able to better withstand an injury to a key player.

"We have gone after a portion of our team, the back end, the secondary, with a vengeance," head coach John Harbaugh said after Humphrey was the team’s surprise first-round selection. "I think we have done a great job as an organization in terms of getting that done."

The Ravens also worked to upgrade a pass rush that disappeared for long stretches last season. The Ravens finished last season with 31 sacks, their lowest total since 2010 and the third-lowest total in franchise history. 

Terrell Suggs will be 35 Oct. 11, and Elvis Dumervil was released. The Ravens added two potentially immediate-impact pass rushers in Bowser and Williams, and they will be looking for more from Za’Darius Smith, who had one sack last season after recording 5.5 as a rookie. Matt Judon, who had four sacks as a rookie last year, also returns.

Harbaugh, entering his 10th season in Baltimore, said he believes the 2017 Ravens have the deepest secondary and deepest group of pass rushers in his tenure.

The reason for this defensive emphasis isn’t hard to spot. Hint: Look toward Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

"We have two teams at least -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- that put great receivers on the field against you, and you have to match that talent, talent for talent," Harbaugh said. "You have to match strength for strength, and I think we have done that [by drafting Humphrey]. … It gives us a chance to get out there in the fourth quarter, in two-minute, and do the things we need to do to finish games."

Harbaugh also said given the resources committed to the defense, there are rightfully expectations as well.

"I don’t want to overstate the expectations, but I’m not afraid to do that, really. I expect these guys to be great," he said. "I know the guys believe that. … We expect to put a great defense on the field. Now, we kind of expect to do that every year."

The Ravens' 2017 draft class:
1st round: Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
2nd round: Tyus Bowser, OLB, Houston
3rd round: Chris Wormley, DE, Michigan
3rd round: Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama
4th round: Nico Siragusa, G, San Diego State
5th round: Jermaine Eluemunor, G/T, Texas A&M
6th round: Chuck Clark, S, Virginia Tech

Issue 233: May 2017