This might be an odd analogy for a good Catholic boy to make, but the NFL Draft is a lot like Hanukkah: it goes on for days; you get a lot of gifts, but you have no idea what half of them are; and ever-spiraling commercialism has blown the whole thing way out of proportion.
When the draft started in 1936, teams didn't have scouts. They chose 90 names from newspapers, 10 per team, and gave it their best guess. Now the average fan can give you the bench reps and Wonderlic score, and describe in jiggly detail the fleshy wave patterns that half a dozen D-II nose guards' man boobs make when they run a topless 40-yard dash. In '36, the whole shebang took place in a Philadelphia hotel with nobody watching, and only 24 of the 81 players selected even bothered to sign with the league. Seventy-seven years later, there's an audience of thousands at Radio City Music Hall. Camera crews are live from the living rooms of hopeful players, catching the ecstasy of selection or the anguish of gathered family members as each pick slips by with the wrong name called. The shocking thing is that people actually tune in: The NFL Draft is covered live on two cable networks. Remember picking teams at recess? Now imagine watching that for three days. It hardly seems like enough oil to keep the fires lit, but that's the draft.
And within moments of each pick, hundreds of pundits from across the internet join the talking heads to tell us if our team chose wisely. Was that tweener safety out of Northern Illinois University a B- or a C+? He's been in the NFL for almost seven minutes, I think it's time we lock down his legacy. You remember that year you got E.T. for Atari? Man, what a great gift! Then you played it and realized it was the Kyle Boller of video games. On the flip side, your granddad gave you a wallet and you were like, "This sucks," but it turned out he'd slipped a $20 in there, the wallet lasted for years, and you call that wallet Adalius Thomas.
But this is a sports column, I am technically a sportswriter and a certified expert on foosballs, so I guess I'll break this thing down for the ol' home team. The Baltimore Ravens did just win a little game called the Super Bowl, so they're already pretty darn good, and while they'd been hit by some key losses, Ozzie and company had shored up most of the glaring holes with shrewd, low-cost free agents, most notably at D-Line, with Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and outside linebacker with the grand-slam acquisition of Elvis Dumervil. They still had holes in the middle of the defense, needed depth at receiver, and hoped to fill the vacant left tackle position on the offensive line.
Unfortunately, when you win the Super Bowl, you pick last, so the odds of a top tackle talent that could play right away sliding to the Ravens were slim to none. The top three tackles were off the board by the fourth pick, and five were gone before the Ravens hit the podium to take Florida safety Matt Elam. In the second round they moved up to grab Kansas State middle linebacker Arthur Brown, and in the third they picked up defensive tackle Brandon Williams, a Division II guy out of Missouri Southern, showing that middle defense was the team's priority in the draft, and on paper at least, they got better.
Williams may be D-II, but he's a three-time All-American, and you don't do that at any level without serious heart. Throw that heart into a 335-pound body that topped the combine with 38 bench reps and has wowed the YouTube world with his hand-walking video, and you've got a player who should be able to put some pressure on the underperforming Terrence Cody and help spell Haloti Ngata, who has been worn down from overwork the last few seasons. Brown has been called undersized to play in the middle, but flanked by huge outside linebackers Courtney Upshaw, Terrell Suggs, and Dumervil, and with the gargantuan Ngata up front, his size should be masked in the Ravens D, and this kid can fly sideline to sideline, rush the passer in a pinch, and display cover skills the Ravens have lacked at middle linebacker for some time-a big asset in today's pass-happy NFL.
And speaking of pass defense, Elam could be a gem. He's a high-character guy who has overcome the kind of personal tragedy that will make giving up the occasional touchdown, the psychological bugaboo of the defensive back, seem a minor point at most. There's lots of chatter about him filling Ed Reed's size $4-billion shoes, but that's free agent Michael Huff's unenviable job. Elam will be taking Bernard Pollard's walloping spot at strong safety, and I don't expect much of a drop-off. Elam hits like a truck but has a nose for the ball that Pollard lacked and the speed and strength to get to the QB from the edge. The Ravens could use him more like the Steelers use Troy Polamalu.
The fourth-round pick of Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk was a surprise and has got to have Vonta Leach thinking hard about a pay cut, but if Leach does stick around, Juszczyk could fill Brendon Ayanbadejo's vacated special teams' ace roll. The club may have trouble finding that wide receiver that fans covet, but Ozzie and coach Harbaugh have both said they are happy with the guys they've got, and they're going to have to be. As far as tackle, all those studs taken in the first round on Thursday mean some veterans will be looking for work come camp, so fear not for Joe Flacco's life and expect some Ozzie magic to come. The Ravens do the draft as well as anyone, but these kids haven't even put on the purple yet. Let's just hope they didn't pick too many dreidels.