Thursday, April 26, 2012

One of the most important drafts in franchise history

The Baltimore Sun today says:

With a number of needs, Ravens head into one of the most important drafts in franchise history

I reject that.  There is no way.  How can this draft be one of the most important?

I'm not saying this draft is not important.  The draft is the most critical means by which teams acquire frontline talent for the next several years.  So that makes every draft important.  Fail to acquire talent, and you have blown your best opportunity for a year.  You've set yourself back.  The draft as a process is important; so every year's draft is important. 
(If you click thru to the linked article, it says pretty much the same thing.)

But ranking the drafts against each other, as to which particular year's draft is more important than other years?  Surely this year's is one of the most UNimportant in Ravens history. 

What were the MOST important draft years in Ravens history?  Well, probably the #1 most important draft year for the Ravens was 1996, their first year of existence in Baltimore.  The foundation draft.  They got Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden.  NAILED IT!  Imagine how different Ravens history would be if they had gotten, say, Lawrence Phillips and Eric Moulds instead.  Eric Moulds was a fine player, an excellent player: 10 years in the league, 3-time Pro Bowler, 10k yards receiving.  But he certainly hasn't been Ray Lewis.

2nd-most important draft?  Tough to say, but looking back over Ravens history, their worst record after their 4-12 first season in Baltimore, was their 5-11 record in 2007.  That indicates that the 2008 draft was pretty important.  They got Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.  I'll say "Nailed it!" again: not in all-caps this time, since it doesn't look like those guys are going to the Hall of Fame as among the best ever to play their position, but still with the same tone of voice, since those are foundational players at two critical positions.  Franchise-changers, both of them. 

(Re: franchise-changers.  It's easy to get caught up in a discussion about how good Joe Flacco is or is not.  But it's important to note that (a) Flacco is by far the best QB the Ravens have ever had, climbing to the top of their leaderboard in every important stat after just 3 mediocre seasons; and (b) Ravens fans always wondered how well the team could do if they had just average-to-good quarterbacking.  Now we know.  In four seasons, they've made the playoffs every year, won a division title, and made it to 2 conf championship games.  Just a couple plays from the Super Bowl both times.  "Stability" is also a virtue, and Flacco has, at the very least, brought that.)

Among other "important" drafts, I'm drawn to 2002 and 2003.  Remember, in 2000 the Ravens won the SuperBowl, and then in the offseason they loaded up on old guys, trying to repeat.  They failed in 2001, and endured an epic salary purge.  In 2002 they fielded the youngest team in modern NFL history.  So in 2002 and 2003 they were undergoing a massive and quick rebuilding/turnaround.  They got (2002) Ed Reed and (2003) Terrell Suggs & Jarret Johnson.  NAILED IT!  They also got useful players in Anthony Weaver, Ovie Mughelli, Aubrayo Franklin and Tony Pashos. 

(Um, they also got [cough cough] Kyle Boller.  That pick probably underscores a number of important points, maybe about the importance of making good decisions with first-round picks and with QBs, and about the appropriate yardstick for measuring Flacco as a draft pick.  But let's move along.)

Those drafts listed above were "important" for the team context in which they occurred.  Bad teams, needing to make a change to quickly establish new "eras".

So where does this year's draft rank in importance?  Way toward the "less important" end of the spectrum.  

This current Ravens team holds the division title and is coming off a conference championship game appearance.  Almost a Super Bowl team – really, breathtakingly close to being in the Super Bowl.  In the "normal" case, their expected record this coming year is somewhere between 9-7 and 14-2.  I'm assuming a "normal" amount of progression by players who were young last season (like Torrey Smith & Jimmy Smith), and a "normal" amount of erosion due to player age and free agency, and assuming that Ray Lewis & Ed Reed don't suddenly fall of a cliff in terms of their productivity.  Assuming the I-word does not play too big a role.  In the "normal" course of events, these Ravens will be in a dogfight with the Steelers and Bengals for the division title, the division winner will probably be the #2 or #3 seed in the AFC, two of those teams probably make the playoffs, the Ravens probably will be one of them.  And that's the case no matter how this draft plays out.

I'm not saying the Ravens don't have important holes to fill.  They do.  They need help on the O-line, they need a pass-rusher, they could use another downfield threat, they need a backup RB.  (These holes are documented in the  linked article.  Which really is a good and interesting piece, I don't mean to savage it here.)  Finding good players to fill some of those roles will be very important to the future success of the team.  

But, these are mostly just normal holes, the result of the normal wear-&-tear of having a football team.  The Ravens are (knock wood) not at any kind of "crossroads" where they need a dramatic change to create a new era.  They need to add some talent and keep going the way they have been.

This year's draft is "important" the way they're all important.  But it's less important than some have been.


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