The fashionable thing to say for men who run drafts is they'll set their boards and honor them and take the best player available. I believe general managers approach drafts that way, but when it comes time to pull the trigger, they're going to pay more attention to positions of need than they'll admit. They should. If you're set with two good young tackles, why pick a tackle, just because the top guy on your board is a tackle?
Consistently over the years, the Baltimore Ravens have drafted for need while not bastardizing the integrity of their draft board. In 2008, GM Ozzie Newsome knew the strength of the draft wasn't at quarterback (except for Matt Ryan) or running back, but he knew he needed help at both positions. He maneuvered through two trades, picked Joe Flacco at 18, waited for the running backs to fall to him at 55, and got Ray Rice there. Without those two picks, there's little chance the Ravens would have won the Super Bowl in February.
And this year, I think the Ravens showed how you can honor your board while making sure you address huge needs on your team. Here's how:
? Safety. Baltimore let both starting safeties, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, walk, figuring one of the safeties it liked -- Matt Elam or Johnathan Cyprien -- would be there when it picked late in the first round at 32. If not, the Ravens would address their major need at linebacker after losing Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. They got Elam at 32; lucky for them, because Cyprien went 33rd to Jacksonville.
? Linebacker. A great leader, Lewis, was lost. A potential leader, Arthur Brown, was found, at 56 overall in the second round. The Ravens, as I wrote last week, heard reliably that Houston (drafting 57th) and Denver (58th) were interested in Brown, so they traded ahead of them to get Brown. This is a leader: Brown played for two years at Kansas State -- and was elected captain both years. The other linebacker they picked was a two-year captain, at Ohio State, and coach Urban Meyer called John Simon (fourth round, 129th) the second-favorite player he has coached (behind Tim Tebow). Ohio State defensive aide Mike Vrabel sold the Ravens -- and any other team that would listen -- on Simon's pro capabilities as a strongside NFL linebacker who could also play inside.
? Fullback. The Baltimore fullback will play about 45 percent of the offensive snaps, more than on most teams, and Vonta Leach turns 32 this year. Time for an heir. But from Harvard? Kyle Juszczyk (fourth round, 130th overall) stood up the best pass rushers with some stonewall blocks at Senior Bowl practices and in the game, proving to Baltimore he can be the personal protector for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce when the time comes.
? Defensive tackle. A must in Baltimore's 3-4 hybrid, obviously, and any time a big man like Haloti Ngata is getting up there (28 now), it's smart to address the position. They picked a small-school, lean 345-pounder (if that's possible) at 94th overall, Brandon Williams of Missouri Southern. Baltimore interior linemen have to be athletes, and Williams looked like one at the Senior Bowl. Said John Harbaugh: "Tremendous athlete. There's a YouTube video of him out there walking on his hands for 10 seconds.''
"We really went to the hardware store this year in the draft,'' said Harbaugh.
That leaves one major position of need. Baltimore didn't take a wide receiver until the seventh round (Aaron Mellette, Elon), so the Ravens, obviously, still will be mining for one before training camp starts. The only mistake I can see that the Ravens made this offseason was letting a $2 million financial disagreement with a vital player, wideout Anquan Boldin, lead to him being traded to San Francisco. I'll never agree with that one. Smart teams find a way to make up for losses like that, but that's a big one to overcome. Look for Baltimore to be more tight-end oriented if a prospect like Tandon Doss doesn't step up to the pressure spot in training camp.
Now for your email:
JIM MAKES A GOOD POINT. "Maybe I'm just biased (as an AZ Cards fan) but I don't think the new regime is getting enough credit in most quarters for the offseason. Carson Palmer may or may not pan out, but he's leaps and bounds ahead of anyone they've had since Warner retired, as far as a skill set is concerned. Then, they came into the draft with seven picks and came out with nine players, all without giving up future draft capital. At least seven of the nine are likely to contribute immediately (as an improvement over their predecessors) and at least three have very high ceilings. There, I've said it."
-- Jim Keane, Los Angeles
The biggest thing about the Cardinals draft, to me, is they concentrated on players who aren't glamor guys but who fit exactly what they do. Bruce Arians wants a tough, physical offensive line, and Jonathan Cooper might be too high for some at seventh overall, but why is that too high if he plugs a position and plays it well for eight or 10 years? Kevin Minter will be the kind of linebacker who starts early and makes lots of tackles, though he won't be the sideline-to-sideline playmaker some in this draft will be. Tyrann Mathieu's a big risk, and I have my doubts, but at 69, it's not a bad place to take a guy who will be a good contributor if he stays out of trouble. Stepfan Taylor will play early and get quality carries. I thought it was a good weekend for Arizona, but we never really know for two or three years.
I OVERRATED KLUWE, STEVE THINKS. "Chris Kluwe: Terrific guy. I agree with all of the stances he has stated about certain social issues. He also ranked 31st on punts inside the 20, he doesn't qualify for acceleration so his cap hit is erased, and there will be two years punting at least eight games outside at TCF Bank Stadium. Chris will find an NFL job, and "yes" I can see the Vikings, like most teams, do not want excessive distractions, but it doesn't mean the team disagrees with Chris's stances -- not that teams are unified in their social beliefs -- it simply means that there were between the lines reasons for replacing him as well as one outside the lines. If those stats, his age and cap number were more in-line with what the Vikings need, he would still be their punter."
-- Steve, Richfield, Minn.
Well, if you read what I wrote, two of your points aren't valid, if you ask me. I showed how he's had a slightly higher average over the last two years outside than inside, so why does playing eight games a year outside bother you? At $1.4 million, he's 14th on the list of punter salaries this year; his replacement, Jeff Locke, will make about $580,000 total this year, so it's a money savings of $800,000 this year. Will it be worth it? Maybe. We'll see. Kluwe's not the best punter in the league; we know that. But you leave out the fact that last year was his best net-punting season in eight years with the Vikings, and his third-best gross punting average. Arguably, he had his best season, or one of his best two, and he got replaced. Just seems like the wrong time to me.
PIOLI BACK TO NEW ENGLAND? "I'd like to see Scott Pioli come back to New England. I don't think Bill Belichick's drafts have been quite as successful since Pioli left the Patriots. I think they are better together than either are alone, when it comes to the draft room.''
-- Kevin Bedard, Westford, Mass.
Well, Pioli wants to try his hand at the media this season, to see if he likes it and if he has a future in it. He may not be offered a GM job again -- or at least not in 2014 -- so he could have a job choice to make after this season. Would he go somewhere as a No. 2 guy, say in a place like Atlanta with Thomas Dimitroff, or Chicago with Phil Emery (he is friends with both)? Or would he go back to New England, where Nick Caserio has filled his spot since Pioli left to be the Chiefs' GM in 2009? I think he'd rather go be a No. 2 elsewhere than back to the crowded house in New England, unless Caserio gets a GM job somewhere in 2014. But we'll see. There's a lot we don't know yet, and Pioli might like this side of the business.
GOOD POINT. "In your last Tuesday mailbag you wrote about the need for the NFL to create an environment where a player feels comfortable to come out as Jason Collins did. Is it a concern that at the same time this is happening we see a productive player like Chris Kluwe losing his job simply for having an opinion on gay rights? I know Minnesota will say that is not the reason it replaced him, but his stat line for last season proves punter was not a position of need for Minnesota and yet they spent a pick on replacing Kluwe anyway. I know that if I were an NFL player right now I would think twice about discussing gay rights, let alone coming out as gay."
-- Matt Newman, Saraland, Ala.
Kluwe told me last week he thought players would come out, essentially, if they thought it wouldn't affect their ability to make a living. And I am sure some will feel the way you do -- why speak out for gay rights if you believe it might have hastened Kluwe's departure from the Vikings and might do the same to you?
ON JUSTIN BLACKMON. "First time emailer here, but long time fan of the column. I was suprised this week you didnt mention anything about the Justin Blackmon arrest. Now with a four-game suspension (and his second strike in the NFL program) he's one drink away from a full year suspension and arguably the end of a very promising career. I'm sure this would've been mentioned if he were on the Jets, but the number five overall pick of 2012 already at the crossroads of his NFL career after one year in the league is a noteworthy story."
-- Brad, Jacksonville
It is noteworthy, and I should have noted it. My error. There's blame to go around here. Gene Smith, the former GM, thought a DUI in college wasn't typical behavior for Blackmon, and probably didn't take his off-field conduct seriously enough. I blame Blackmon mostly. At some point, you have to be an adult. Three incidents going back to his final year in college are ridiculous, and a sign that he needs to get significant help now. Which I'm sure he's getting.
DRAFT INFORMATION CAN BE MYSTERIOUS. "Peter, you said the Ravens got wind that the Broncos and Texans were interested in Arthur Brown. How do teams "get wind" of another team wanting a player on draft day? It would seem to me that draft war rooms should be locked down like Fort Knox, and any information that gets out, would be deliberately leaked misinformation."
--Shane Richardson, Robins AFB, Ga.
Lots of front-office people have lots of friends -- in and out of the game. How does it happen? Think of how many people the average GM comes in contact with: scouts, coaches, other GMs, writers, network officials. Let's say a GM is dying to know what another team is going to do, and he knows two or three people in the NFL circle who don't work for that team. What's to stop him from calling those people, who don't work for that team, and saying, "Gut feeling: What do you think they're going to do when their spot comes up?" I think that happens. And I think sometimes those gut feelings are right. Now, I don't know that this is the way it happens, but I do think in the days before a draft and during the draft, smart NFL people reach out to try to find out information any way they can.