The Ravens’ 2021 draft class should be approached with guarded optimism.

This group was selected based on potential, not production, which isn’t totally unusual, but there are more questions than normal about these players.

How else can you take an edge rusher in the first round who didn’t have a sack in his final college season? Why else would a general manager select a cornerback in the third round and then leave it to the coaching staff to decide if he will play that position or safety?

Maybe he’ll be the punter, too. You get the drift.

Three or four years from now, this might be one of the best draft classes in Ravens history. But if potential is indeed humanity’s heaviest burden, the Ravens have some weight hanging around their necks. As expected, team officials claimed they were excited about this class, and they should be because they possibly filled two of their biggest needs in drafting a No. 1 receiver and a pass rusher.

But around town, there is nervousness.

Wide receiver Rashod Bateman showed a lot of promise during his career at Minnesota, especially in 2019 when he had 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was slowed because of coronavirus concerns last season, when he played in only five games and had 36 catches for 472 yards and two touchdowns.

But he has outstanding speed and can play outside or inside, causing mismatches with No. 2 or No. 3 cornerbacks and safeties. The apprehension comes from the Ravens’ past failures. There are two prevailing questions in a lot of minds: What’s wrong with Bateman, and can he catch?

Honestly, the stigma is that strong. It’s like you’re waiting for bad things to happen. At least Bateman has statistics to back him up. The Ravens’ other first-round pick, Penn State outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, had only 21 tackles in 2019 but five of those were sacks. Last season, Oweh had 38 tackles but no sacks. Zero. None.

Most pass rushers with Oweh’s motor can stumble into a sack. Also, it’s not as if a lot of those offensive linemen who shut out Oweh in the Big Ten were taken in the first two rounds. Oweh simply has the measurables.

He is 6-feet-5 and weighs 252 pounds. He was timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. At his pro day, he had a vertical jump of 39.5 inches and a broad jump of 11 feet and 2 inches. But Oweh’s biggest problem is that he played too high and had trouble locating the ball.

Maybe the Ravens can coach him up, but he is a ‘’project’’ taken in the first round. It’s fun listening to Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale because he is a hype machine, once comparing Patrick Mahomes versus Lamar Jackson to Peyton Manning against Tom Brady. He pointed out that other great players like Lawrence Taylor and Richard Seymour didn’t have large sacks totals coming out of their last college seasons.

Maybe Oweh will someday be mentioned in that group. Maybe he’ll have a Hall of Fame career, but can’t he just play a snap in the NFL first before he is mentioned in the same breath with Taylor, the greatest outside linebacker of all-time?

The selection of Georgia guard Ben Cleveland in the third round was interesting. He is a brute who fits the team’s mode of operation as a mauler in the run game, and he gives the Ravens some flexibility.

“He’ll definitely have a chance to compete at left guard,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Cleveland. “All those guys will compete. We have our veteran guys there. You talk about Ben [Powers] who played there last year in the offensive line as a starter toward the end of the year. He’ll be involved in that. Of course, Ben Bredeson will be involved in that. We’ll have to see how the rest of it shakes out, but all those young guys will be fighting, and Cleveland will be right there in the middle of it.

“Sure, it gives us the chance possibly to move Bradley [Bozeman] to center. Again, we’ll see how that goes. We still have Pat Mekari, who did a great job at center for us, and Trystan Colon-Castillo at center. So, we have a lot of young guys for spots. As a coach, that’s just what you want to have. So, I can’t wait to see those guys fight it out.”

Hopefully, Cleveland can pass protect as well as run block, which has been a problem the past three years when the Ravens fall behind. They have a quarterback who is inconsistent throwing outside the numbers and a top-heavy offensive line that struggles pass blocking.

Hopefully, Cleveland is better.

Southern Methodist cornerback Brandon Stephens was the second of the Ravens’ two third-round selections (No. 104 overall). It appeared the Ravens had shifted into finding special teams players at that point. Stephens played running back for three years at UCLA before transferring to SMU.

“Right now, we probably would say that we like his potential as a safety,” DeCosta said. “He’s primarily been a corner with some safety play this past year, but he really fits the profile of a free safety-type of player. The thing I like about him when I watch him is with his background as a running back, he really does like contact. He comes up, he’s physical. He’ll force the issue, and he can close the gap very quickly.”

It was a strange draft for the Ravens. They didn’t get a right tackle to replace the recently departed Orlando Brown Jr. and they could have used more youth on the defensive line. It was weird watching them select several defensive backs, which could be a signal something is going on in their back end.

In a draft in which the team needed to hit a couple of home runs, the Ravens might have come out with one if they can coach up Bateman and change some of the dynamics of the offense. But there are too many questions about the the immediate future of the rest of the picks.

Grade: B-

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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