There's still no better rivalry in football that the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. A perfect example of this is that in a year where the Ravens as a team essentially gave up and quit trying in the face of injuries, they still managed to bring the intensity against the Steelers. The result was, despite the disparity in records, the Ravens claimed the upper hand in head-to-head play, and now the Steelers will be facing them with something extra to prove this year.
It's a beautiful thing.
This is a rivalry, though, that goes even deeper than comparing records, or head-to-head results. When the Browns ran away to Baltimore and were stripped of their identity, they chose to re-invent themselves as the Ravens as closely as possible to the winning formula in Pittsburgh. So the Ravens became a 3-4 defense and selected LB's in the first round each of their first two years, adding a second rounder for good measure their second year. That sincerest form of flattery has resulted in a competition for the same kind of players in the draft, and yet another level of rivalry.
This draft rivalry is arguably even more fundamental than counting playoff victories or head-to-head victories because it's the draft that largely determines the outcome of the on-field rivalry. The matchup between the scouts and general managers for each team to come away with the better players with the skill set that both teams are seeking ultimately determines what matchups there are on the field and who is favored in those matchups.
That's never been more apparent than recently when the draft has become a much more public spectacle and while both teams are going through a reloading phase, a lot of flack has been flown regarding this rivalry that is now starting to become more noticed. With not much else going on but speculation about the development of young players, now is good time to single out some key players and their Baltimore counterparts who are in clearest competition with each other and provide the clearest demonstrations of how the draft rivalry is going.
Shazier vs. Mosely
You knew this was going to be the headline event, and you were right. Ryan Shazier was mentioned by some early in the process as a possibility for the Steelers, but was forgotten by most until he became their actual pick. The Ravens claimed C.J. Mosely with the very next selection and went on to boast considerably in his success while Shazier was hampered by injuries during his rookie year.
Other than worries about Mosely's injury history there was no real reason to be surprised by his success as he was universally viewed as a safe, high floor pick. Shazier's injuries have been surprising given his iron man record before coming the NFL, and have limited his total impact, but he still recorded more big plays than Mosely last year and even more tackles on a per game basis. There's no doubt that he can reach the higher ceiling for which the Steelers drafted him ahead of Mosely - if he can finally stay healthy.
There's a good chance this year he will. Shazier has the opportunity to slim down to a more natural weight this year as he knows a little better what he's doing and can rely on better technique to avoid getting pushed around. He'll have some help with that too in an improved interior DL that should create space for him to exploit. He also by now should be a little wiser in terms of when and where to lay the big hit. All in all, I expect Shazier to outperform Mosely this year and then will follow the same odd silence on this topic as the Tuitt-Jernigan comparison that Ravens fans claimed to have gotten the better of after the first year.
James vs. Williams
Only slightly less significant an incident in the draft rivalry is the polarizing figure of Maxx Williams. The TE was a pre-draft favorite of many Steelers fans, and when the Ravens traded up to grab him ahead of the Steelers quite a few of the Ravens followers boasted about Ozzie Newsome's acumen in "stealing the Steelers' player." Not only does this merely re-iterate how desperate the Ravens are to be as much like the Steelers as possible, it's probably not even true the Steelers were targeting Williams. The player the Steelers ended up selecting, a CB, filled a much bigger need as was demonstrated last year when he was injured and his absence was sorely felt.
The Steelers would go on to find their TE three rounds later in Jesse James, who performed not just well for a 5th rounder (just making the team) but played very competently in spot duty when Heath Miller was injured. Meanwhile, Maxx Williams had an anemic rookie year with only 268 yards and 1 TD despite being forced to the forefront by injuries throughout the rest of the receiving corps that should've left him, in theory, as their best receiver for a significant part of the year.
TE's typically take at least a year to get rolling, and Williams will only be put to the true test this year. He may have a breakout year, but he's still going to have to compete with Crockett Gilmore, Ben Watson, and Dennis Pitta for targets in the Ravens' pioneering 4 TE offense (yes, Ozzie Newsome was a TE as a player). Jesse James will be also be competing for looks, with Ladarius Green as well as some WR's, which the Steelers have, but showed enough last year to warrant the question of whether Colbert might've gotten as good a player in the 5th round as Ozzie traded up for in the 2nd.
James showed flashes of quality play last year with 56 yards and a TD in very limited opportunities as well as some high quality blocking ability that will help keep him on the field. Given that he had dramatically fewer targets and was more efficient with his targets than Williams isn't bad. It's also worth noting that Williams had a significant developmental head start in experience on James coming out of college that has by now been largely erased.
I think this matchup really favors the Steelers since Williams will have to be dramatically better than James to justify the much greater draft investment made in him, and I don't see that happening. It wouldn't shock me if James ended up being better overall, which would be a serious coup for team Colbert. James flew under the radar while Williams soared like an eagle, both because of college production, which doesn't mean a heck of a lot. James was bigger, much stronger (9 reps), and still more explosive (3 inches and 4 inches in vert/broad jumps) than Williams at the Combine, and only slower by 0.05 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Dupree vs. Smith
Another comparison that has inevitably popped up is between former teammates drafted at very different places by rival teams. Ravens fans were loud and proud last year about how Ozzie nabbed a better player than Dupree in the 4th round, and off the same team! The reality, though, is that while Smith was slightly more productive as a rookie, the projected career arc of each made that discrepancy both unsurprising and likely short-lived.
Dupree was not drafted to be better than Smith as a rookie, or even good. Actually, he out performed most of our expectations of him as a rookie because he was just about as raw as it gets coming out of college. Smith, on the other hand, was not drafted as a project with massive upside but because of his high floor. The Ravens knew what they were getting in Smith and that's a hard-nosed, hard working, fighter who does the little things right, but will likely never accomplish big things. In short, everybody knew last year that Dupree's rookie year would only be the tip of the iceberg of what he was capable of and that Smith was probably at or close to his peak potential already.
As likely as it is that Dupree dramatically outperforms Smith next year, it's still a tough matchup rivalry-wise because he was drafted dramatically higher too. The fact that Smith could be a capable starter coming from the 4th round requires Dupree to be a star for the Steelers to claim better value from him. I'm not sure which way this one will go.
Coates vs. Perriman
You can't blame Ravens fans for getting excited about a player that runs a 4.2 forty at 6-feet 2-inches, and is more than just a deep threat, serving as a do-everything receiver in college. The thing is, make him merely fast (4.4 forty) instead of freaky fast and you've got Sammie Coates, who the Steelers were able to get back in the 3rd round. This probably shouldn't even be a discussion, because there's a pretty big difference between 4.2 and 4.4, but both Colbert and Newsome have already developed completely opposite reputations for drafting WR's, and Perriman did something of a vanishing act as a rookie with a mysteriously tenacious injury leading many Ravens fans to unfairly call him a bust before he even dropped his first pass.
The two receivers are literally the same size, the same skills set, similar in production when you account for a stiffer level of competition for Coates, and have the same problems with over-reliance on athleticism in place of technique and a bad case of bad hands. Perriman has a higher floor and a higher ceiling because of his freakish speed and college dominance, and will get more opportunities as Coates is stuck in a log jam with at least two other very talented WR's competing for whatever Antonio Brown leaves for them. That log jam also works in his favor, though, as it demonstrates a strong coaching staff with a track record of success that Baltimore just doesn't have. You also have to consider the effects of Perriman's injury.
Right now, Coates has the lead in this race by virtue of having seen the field, and even has 3 receptions to his name for 72 yards. If Perriman comes even close to his exciting potential, Coates will be hard pressed to win this matchup and Newsome can chip away some at the massive WR advantage Colbert has over him. If Coates succeeds like Colbert's WR's are accustomed to succeeding though, Perriman will have to play to his full potential to keep this matchup from becoming another sign of Colbert's superior draft management.
Hargrave vs. Henry
This past draft both teams quietly made a move in the middle rounds to bolster their interior pass rush. The Steelers grabbed Javon Hargrave, a dominating small school 3-tech in the 3rd round, while the Ravens waited a round to pick up Willie Henry, a big school prospect for Michigan, in the 4th.
There's not a lot to judge these guys on yet as rookies, obviously. Really, the biggest thing that separates them is level of college competition. That will make the question of which them is actually better all the more interesting.
Make no mistake, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is still the best in football. The rivalry is driven, in large part, by the Ravens' plan to copy the Steelers' blueprint for success and the ensuing draft rivalry that has played out between Kevin Colbert, Ozzie Newsome, and their staffs. This rivalry is all the more critical as both teams go through a reloading phase, and some big matchups in the past drafts like those mentioned above are what will shape the on the field rivalry for the next generation.
In some cases, that's the decision to go with a late rounder vs. an early rounder, in other cases it's the decision to go with one particular player rather than the other. It's not about just talent evaluation but working the draft to get the most value possible.
To my completely biased eye, I'd say Colbert looks to have the advantage.