The 2021 NFL season unofficially started last month with the opening of free agency, but the league’s first landmark event of the season begins tomorrow night in Cleveland. After conducting an entirely virtual draft last spring, the NFL’s off-season spectacle will accept fans at FirstEnergy Stadium, where the newest members of the National Football League will walk across the stage to hold their new team’s jersey.
Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta hit last year’s draft out of the park, picking up multiple on-field contributors in what many analysts considered the best draft class of 2020. Can Ozzie Newsome’s former apprentice match the feat in 2021?
DeCosta addressed areas of need early and often last spring, selecting the likes of LSU linebacker Patrick Queen, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, Texas wide receiver Devin Duvernay and Mississippi State tackle Tyre Phillips.
Although Queen’s rookie campaign got off to a rocky start, DeCosta looks to have acquired a defensive cornerstone. Queen finished the 2020 season with a team-high 106 tackles while also tallying three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. That performance saw Queen finish third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race behind Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn and the runaway winner, Washington defensive end Chase Young.
Dobbins, Baltimore’s second-round selection, will almost certainly be the team’s lead back in 2021. After spending the first half of the season as an afterthought, Dobbins finished strong, running for 425 yards and six touchdowns in Baltimore’s final five games.
Primarily a special teamer in 2020, Duvernay looks poised for an increased role this season, as does Phillips, who appears to be the favorite to start at guard opposite free-agent signing Kevin Zeitler.
2021 team needs
WR, C, DL
Quarterback Lamar Jackson needs a possession-type receiver opposite Marquise Brown, someone to threaten underneath when Brown works outside. Sammy Watkins is a solid veteran addition but does not move the needle for a team looking to keep pace with the Chiefs and Bills in the AFC arms race.
Once an area of consistent strength, Baltimore’s defensive line is now an area of dire need following the departures of Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. And despite the backing of general manager Eric DeCosta, 32-year-old defensive tackle Brandon Williams has to wonder about his future with the Ravens, who would save $7.5 million by parting ways with the player. Cutting Williams to sign defensive end help is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it may be necessary if the Ravens can’t find edge help in the draft.
Baltimore’s offensive line is largely set following the signing of guard Kevin Zeitler, but DeCosta and company must look at adding a center before the 2021 season. The position was an Achilles heel of sorts last year, although the team may be better off waiting for a veteran at the position to shake loose later in the offseason.
Carlos Basham (EDGE, Wake Forest)
Carlos Basham just seems like a player destined to play for the Ravens . Basham is versatile (he excelled against the run and pass at Wake Forest) and and couples elite athleticism with a relentless motor. Basham could be a Day One replacement for Judon with the opportunity to become a major player on Baltimore’s defensive line.
Rashod Bateman (WR, Minnesota)
That possession-type receiver I mentioned earlier? No prospect fits the bill better than Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, Bateman is the very piece missing in Baltimore’s offensive puzzle. The former Golden Gopher is an elite route-runner with excellent hands and a big catch radius. Bateman is deceptively fast off the line and has the potential to become a true no. 1 receiver for any team. Ravens officials should sprint to the podium if Bateman is still on the board at 27.
Liam Eichenberg (T, Notre Dame)
Despite starting at left tackle for three years in South Bend, many draft experts believe Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg projects as an NFL right tackle. As it happens, the Ravens have an Orlando Brown-sized hole at the position after Brown was traded to the Chiefs. Eichenberg isn’t the most athletic guy at the position but he pairs a ton of experience with the type of physical style Baltimore covets in the run game. Eichenberg could be a great option for the Ravens in round two.