The key to long-term roster health in the NFL is to draft well. By developing young players into tomorrow's starters, teams don't have to rely on expensive free agents to round out the team, nor do they have to continue to overpay past-their-prime veterans.
The Baltimore Ravens have a very solid draft history, with more successes than failures. However, there have been some notable misses to go along with their many hits. Here are a few of the biggest studs and duds of the Ravens' draft classes over the last five years.
Stud: QB Joe Flacco, 2008, Round 1, Pick 18
In the five years since the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco to be their quarterback of the future, he's led them to the playoffs each season and ultimately capped off his first contract with the team by helping them win the franchise's second Super Bowl. He was rewarded with a six-year, $120.6 million contract as a result, and while the fortuitous timing had something to do with it, it is also a legitimate reward for one of the most solid quarterbacks in the league.
Though Flacco doesn't have the highest passing yardage totals year after year, and while he's been inconsistent at times, what he's provided the Ravens thus far has been much more than most other teams around the league can boast.
Despite being hamstrung by former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's conservative play-calling and a rotating cast of often middling receivers, Flacco has continually been an asset to his team while minimizing any negative impact. Flacco is the perfect quarterback for today's Ravens and there's no doubt he's one of their best draft picks in the last five years.
Dud: S Tom Zbikowski, 2008, Round 3, Pick 86
Though the majority of former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski's starting snaps came as an injury replacement, with special teams being his primary job, it's hard to not look at his career arc and see a poor Ravens choice.
Considering the Ravens' current safety situation, they would have much rather had starting-caliber depth waiting in their wings rather than having to pick up free agent Michael Huff (though they did so for a relative pittance) or have to rely on finding someone in this year's draft who can take the field immediately. Zbikowski, had he panned out, could have been that player. Instead, they let him walk in free agency in 2012, and he headed to the Indianapolis Colts.
With the Colts, Zbikowski became their starting free safety, playing 707 snaps. Though he only gave up one touchdown in coverage, he allowed 68 percent (subscription required) of passes thrown his way to be completed, for 190 yards and 79 yards after the catch.
He lasted only one year in Indianapolis and was just signed to a one-year deal with the Chicago Bears; if he does anything more than special teams for them, he'll continue on his journeyman ways in 2014. In terms of staying power—in Baltimore and elsewhere—Zbikowski is somewhat of a dud.
Stud: RB Ray Rice, 2008, Round 2, Pick 55
Without question, the top two Ravens picks in 2008's draft have made the greatest impact on the team's success in the intervening years. After taking quarterback Joe Flacco in the first round, they selected running back Ray Rice in the second, and in Rice found the kind of high-impact rusher who can help carry an entire offense.
Once taking over full-time duties in 2009, Rice continually has found himself in the upper tier of rushing yards per season, with at least 1,100 each year. He's also been heavily targeted as a receiver, with over 700 receiving yards in two of the last four years and no fewer than 478 in that span.
There are few backs in the NFL as versatile and resilient as Rice. Though sometimes he's not given the carries he's worth or perhaps he's thrown to too much, every time he touches the ball he makes an impact (see 29, 4th-and).
Dud: NT Terrence Cody, 2010, Round 2, Pick 57
The Ravens were hoping to get insurance for starting nose tackle Haloti Ngata and potentially his eventual replacement when they drafted Terrence Cody in the second round of 2010's draft. Instead, they got a marginal contributor who won't likely win Ngata's job—or a start that isn't necessitated by injury—any time soon.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu took Cody's starting job from him in 2012, which says quite a bit—Kemoeatu was a free-agent acquisition last year and barely outplayed Cody during the season, but it was enough to relegate Cody to the bench or to situational duty. Baltimore's long-term defensive tackle plans hung heavily on the selection of Cody, but after 2013, they're likely to move on from him.
Stud: WR Torrey Smith, 2011, Round 2, Pick 58
Though Torrey Smith is still developing as a wide receiver and has yet to reach his peak, what he's provided the Ravens in his two short seasons as their starting big-play wideout has given enough proof that he's already worthy of the "stud" designation.
Smith caught only 46.9 percent of the total 128 passes thrown his way in 2012, but he turned that into 1,088 total yards—or 18.1 yards per reception—and 10 touchdowns. With a big-armed quarterback like Joe Flacco, a receiver capable of getting down the field and catching the deep ball was a requirement for the Ravens, and Smith certainly fits that bill.
Smith might be more of a specialist rather than a go-to option, but his role on Baltimore's offense has been invaluable thus far. With Anquan Boldin gone, Smith's responsibilities should only increase in 2013. If he can prove more versatile than simply being able to stretch the field for Flacco and the Ravens, he could turn into one of the NFL's all-around top receivers.