There are two basic approaches for the NFL draft. The first and most common method is to allocate picks to building as much balance on your team as possible — if your offense is the problem, add a quarterback, a playmaking receiver, a punishing running back, or a dynamic, seam-stretching tight end. If it’s your defense holding you back, find an explosive pass rusher or defensive back to add to the fray. If you’re bad on both sides of the ball, well, then you’re going to have to mix and match your picks throughout the draft.
Then there’s the other way of going about it: Screw balance and just double down on what you’re already good at.
Based on the first two days of the draft, the Ravens, Eagles, and Seahawks fall into the latter category.
Baltimore finished the 2016 season 21st in points, 21st in total yards, and 24th in offensive DVOA — and that’s before future Hall of Fame wideout Steve Smith retired and starting right tackle Rick Wagner left in free agency. Combine that with the Ravens boasting one of the best defenses in the league — a squad that ranked sixth in defensive DVOA last year and ninth in points per game — and you’d think that general manager Ozzie Newsome would look to bolster quarterback Joe Flacco’s arsenal of targets by drafting one of this class’s top tackles, a receiver or two, and a game-changing running back.
Instead, Newsome’s first four picks have been tough, physical defenders that perfectly fit the Ravens brand: In the first round, Baltimore took Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, an intimidating tackler with prototypical size and speed on the outside. In the second, the Ravens grabbed Houston pass rusher Tyus Bowser, then in the third, added Michigan defensive lineman Chris Wormley and Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams. Baltimore’s defense may be on the field an awful lot in 2017 as the offense struggles to move the ball, but they’re going to beat the hell out of people.
The Eagles seem to be taking a similar tack: Philly added receiver Alshon Jeffery in free agency, but the oft-injured red zone threat isn’t going to solve everything for an offense that finished last year 16th in points, 22nd in yards, and 20th in offensive DVOA. Instead of providing second-year passer Carson Wentz a home run threat at running back or wide receiver, executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman spent his first three picks on players for Jim Schwartz’s already-fearsome defense.
The Eagles grabbed Tennessee pass rusher Derek Barnett in the first, Washington cornerback Sidney Jones — who many considered a top-10 pick before he tore his Achilles at his pro day — in the second, and West Virginia cornerback Rasul Douglas in the third. And don’t forget the pre-draft trade for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, acquired from Baltimore for a swap in third-round picks. Now, the Eagles did come into the draft thin at the cornerback spot, but they’ve used the biggest pieces of their draft capital this year to add to a defense that finished fourth in DVOA last year.
Then there’s Seattle, which used four of its first five picks to bolster an already-dominant defensive group that ranked third in points allowed and fifth in defensive DVOA in 2016. The offense, which finished 17th in offensive DVOA and 18th in points scored, has a clear and obvious need on the offensive line (as always), but GM John Schneider passed up multiple chances to draft Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Alabama’s Cam Robinson, and Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp in the first round, instead trading down three times before selecting Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell in the early part of the second. Seattle did grab LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic in the second round, but then immediately went back to adding defensive pieces, selecting Central Florida cornerback Shaquill Griffin, Michigan safety Delano Hill, and North Carolina defensive tackle Nazair Jones in the third before finishing up the day by grabbing receiver Amara Darboh, another Michigan product. The fearsome Seahawks defense isn’t going anywhere, if Schneider has anything to say about it.
Achieving a level of balance on offense and defense is the ideal for any NFL team — if you’re great on both sides of the ball, you’re going to have the best chance of winning. But the constraints of the salary cap and the built-in parity mechanisms of the league (the draft, the schedule, etc.) mean that sometimes any semblance of balance is damn near impossible to attain. For some teams, getting really, really good on one side of the ball can be a championship formula. Asymmetry was all the rage last year, and the league’s final eight were all relatively one-sided scoring machines — particularly the Falcons, who rode an elite offense to the Super Bowl despite fielding one of the worst defenses in the league. In 2015, the Broncos’ historically dominant defense carried an atrocious offense to a Super Bowl title. Maybe the Ravens, Eagles, or Seahawks are next in line.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of picks the Seahawks used on defensive players. It was four of their first five selections, not five of six.