Remember the draft giraffe: Why Ravens stuck out their necks for picks

The docile long-necked vegetarian giraffe may not remind you of football, but Germain the giraffe served a purpose in the Ravens' draft room. Baltimore Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In giving a video tour last week of the Baltimore Ravens’ draft room, general manager Eric DeCosta showed off the digital boards, pointed out where everyone sits and then picked up an oversized stuffed giraffe out of the corner.

His name is Germaine. He was given to DeCosta’s son, Michael, when he was born 14 years ago. And he serves as a reminder.

"We always tell the scouts: Stick your necks out when you’re talking about a player,” DeCosta explained.

Baltimore's 2021 draft class received some of the highest grades from analysts -- nearly a dozen with either A or B-plus -- but the Ravens certainly stuck out their necks for their picks this year. In the first round, the Ravens selected a wide receiver whose numbers declined last season and an edge-rusher who didn’t have a sack last season.

But both wide receiver Rashod Bateman (27th overall pick) and outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (31st pick) were ranked among Baltimore’s top 20 prospects. Why? The Ravens put more stock in what they saw on tape than numbers, as can be seen by how much they came to the defense of their picks.

Bateman was one of college football’s top wide receivers in 2019, when he produced 1,219 yards receiving (20.3 yards per catch) and 11 touchdowns in 13 games for Minnesota. Last season, his statistics dipped to 472 yards (13.1 yards per reception) and two touchdowns in five games.

The Ravens understood Bateman was infected with COVID-19 and lost 10 pounds. They noticed how he was used differently in the offense in 2020 (Bateman was used in the slot 75% of the time after playing there only 23% of the time in 2019). They also factored in their own analytics.

The conclusion: Bateman was one of the most complete wide receivers in this draft. With how he gets separation and catches everything, Bateman has an opportunity to become Lamar Jackson’s No. 1 wide receiver.

“He really checked off all the boxes,” DeCosta said. "It was, from my perspective, a very easy pick to make.”

Four picks later, the Ravens became the first NFL team in the past 25 years to draft an edge-rusher in the first round after he didn’t record a sack in his last college season.

Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale referred to sacks as “fantasy football.” He pointed out how Danielle Hunter had 1.5 sacks in his final season at LSU and now has 54.5 sacks in five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

When the Ravens watched tape of Oweh at Penn State, they saw him knocking linemen into the backfield, running down ball-carriers from behind and causing havoc. Baltimore outside linebacker coach Drew Wilkins came back from Oweh’s pro day and told Martindale: “That was the best workout that I’ve ever seen live."

"I can't wait for this city to see how special he's going to be,” Martindale said. “What he does when you put on the tape is: There is no one that I saw at that position that gets to the football as fast as he does, and plays as hard as he does. And I think the thing that this city is going to really love is when he gets there, he's not in a good mood.”

In listening to Ravens officials throughout the draft, no selection had a stronger supporter in the room than Georgia guard Ben Cleveland, who was taken toward the bottom of the third round.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been talking to DeCosta about Cleveland for two months. Harbaugh acknowledged that he was “a Nervous Nellie” on Day 2 because he wanted Baltimore to trade up to make sure it landed the 6-foot-6, 343-pound blocker.

In addition to fitting into Baltimore’s mauling run game, Cleveland allowed a total of four pressures on 473 pass blocks the past two seasons (the 99.2% success rate was the best mark by a right guard in the SEC). He also didn’t commit a penalty on 520 snaps last season.

"So, it was relief for me to actually see him available when we picked,” DeCosta said. “This was John’s pick.”

Harbaugh responded, “I’m off your back now.”

The Ravens finished off their draft by taking some versatile players. Brandon Stephens, a third-round pick, is projected to play free safety in Baltimore after playing running back at UCLA and then walking on as a cornerback at SMU. Shaun Wade, a fifth-rounder, is hoping to get his career back on track by returning to his more comfortable position at slot cornerback after playing mostly outside in a disastrous 2020 season, which plummeted his one-time dream of being taken in the first round. Ben Mason, the team’s final pick, has lined up at tight end, fullback and even defensive line, and referred to himself as “the baddest dude on the field at all times."

"Quite honestly, if we had a choice between two players and they were equal talents, we would always defer to the guy that really lives like a Raven, so to speak,” DeCosta said. "That was something that we used to separate a lot of guys this year.”

Play like a Raven, pick like a giraffe.