Ravens' Staff Faces a 'Critical' Draft

Baltimore picks eighth, and quarterback Matt Ryan would be tempting if available.
Baltimore picks eighth, and quarterback Matt Ryan would be tempting if available. (By Winslow Townson -- Associated Press)
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By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Eric DeCosta, the Baltimore Ravens' director of college scouting, has been known to joke that last year's dismal 5-11 season made him feel like he was caught in a movie. A very bad movie.

"You know that movie 'Snakes on a Plane'? I felt like I lived that for 16 weeks," DeCosta said. "Last year, every week after we'd lose, I'd be flying someplace and be miserable. It was a tough year, mentally."

The disappointment of last season is one reason why DeCosta calls the NFL draft that begins Saturday "probably the most critical draft we've ever had." The Ravens have the eighth overall pick, their highest since 2000, when they took running back Jamal Lewis at No. 5. They have holes to fill at cornerstone positions: quarterback, tackle, secondary. And they have a new head coach (John Harbaugh) for the first time since 1999.

But that last-place finish in the AFC North -- which came a year after running away with the division -- is what sits in the back of the minds of Baltimore's decision makers.

"The pressure that I have on myself is that I still have a bitter taste in my mouth about last year," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said at the team's pre-draft luncheon last week.

"We just underachieved as a team, and that's frustrating," DeCosta said. "A lot of our players didn't play up to their standards or our standards, and in scouting, we take some of the blame for that. The best way to fix that is to bring in new players that are hungry, motivated, tough, smart, good football players."

The Ravens will have plenty of opportunities to do that, with a total of nine picks, including two of the first 40 selections. They have had great success when taking players in the top 10 of the draft. Five of the seven players they've taken that high -- tackle Jonathan Ogden (1996, fourth), linebacker Peter Boulware (1997, fourth), cornerback Chris McAlister (1999, 10th), Lewis and linebacker Terrell Suggs (2003, 10th) -- have made at least one Pro Bowl.

Baltimore would love to be able to match that success, particularly at quarterback. Steve McNair retired, leaving the Ravens with two quarterbacks on their roster: Kyle Boller and Troy Smith. The Ravens could wait and see if Boston College's Matt Ryan -- the consensus best quarterback in the draft -- drops to them at No. 8. They've also worked out Michigan's Chad Henne, Delaware's Joe Flacco and Louisville's Brian Brohm.

Ogden, Baltimore's starting left tackle for the past 12 seasons, did not attend the team's first minicamp last week and is expected to retire. Boise State's Ryan Clady is considered to be the second-best tackle behind Jake Long, Miami's first pick, and could be an option at No. 8.

The Ravens have talented cornerbacks in Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister, but both are in their 30s and were limited by injuries last season. The young players who filled in for them struggled at times, so taking Troy's Leodis McKelvin or Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a possibility.

Baltimore also could use another wide receiver, preferably one with some size, and a running back to play behind Willis McGahee. Regardless of position, the Ravens are looking for one quality in particular.

"A lot of what we do is try to measure passion. You have to figure out what's important to your franchise, when you're looking to try to build a team," DeCosta said. "You have to hone in on what are the qualities you want in your players. For us, I think passion is at or near the top. It's hard to gauge that. A lot of teams make mistakes; we've made mistakes. But great players all share one quality, and that's passion."

DeCosta spent much of the past week on the phone, talking to other teams and to reporters to get a feel for what the teams ahead of Baltimore might do. The Ravens try to keep track of which players teams bring in for visits, and DeCosta looks at mock drafts -- anything to get an idea of which teams covet which players. As DeCosta said, "It's a big puzzle, and the more pieces you have before you pick, the easier it is to find your piece."

But by now, the work has been done. All that's left is to wait for the draft to begin.

"The 3 o'clock start is going to make it a little more maniacal for me. I'll probably be there, just banging my head against the wall, waiting," DeCosta said. "We're excited. We feel like we have a great opportunity, and we're hopefully not going to miss. We feel like it's right there in front of us. We have the opportunity to really change the complexion of the roster."

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