Like his first three draft classes, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta deserves a couple of years to mature on the job. But his decision-making will be under scrutiny this offseason as he puts together the team’s 2022 roster.
The Ravens were expected to be serious contenders in 2021 but fell apart midseason, losing their final six games and failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Injuries played a major part as Baltimore placed 25 players on injured reserve and used 46 starters throughout the season.
DeCosta has to rebuild and remodel while at the same time taking into consideration that some of the Ravens’ injured players — such as defensive end Derek Wolfe, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle — might not be ready for the start of 2022.
It’s a tricky situation.
“Everybody is different; all of our players are totally different,” DeCosta said last week during his end-of-season news conference. “Personality, ability, motivation, drivers, off the field, family situations, where they grew up, how they grew up — all those different things factor into how guys play initially and how they play long term. And so, as we’re building a team, one of the worst things that we can do is make a move, bring a guy in, and then the guy behind him emerges quickly, and then all of a sudden, we have two guys for one spot. That’s a frustrating thing — when that happens — and it’s happened over the years; it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
“So, what we try to do, one of the biggest jobs we have is assessing our players — what do we have currently? — evaluating the players we have on campus. What are they going to be? Where are they going to go? How fast are they going to get there? In some cases, we make the determination that we don’t have the right guy yet, and we have to find that guy to do that. Hopefully, if that’s the case, the guy we bring in is good and can play right away and he’s everything we think he’s going to be — he’s instant coffee — but sometimes, the guys have to percolate for a while and then they become really good.”
The Ravens, though, shouldn’t be fooled. Except for the Pittsburgh Steelers, they probably would not have beaten any of the other six teams in the AFC playoffs. Those teams played at a faster pace and with fewer penalties. They had dynamic pass rushers and their passing games operated at a higher level than the Ravens’.
Most importantly, those teams had impact quarterbacks in Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (except for the second half of the AFC championship game). There were home run-hitting receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Travis Kelce.
When you look at the Ravens’ offense, they’ve got a game-changing quarterback in Lamar Jackson (when healthy) and tight end Mark Andrews. On defense, they have cornerback Marcus Peters, who is coming back from a major knee injury at age 29.
That’s it, folks.
Even when they are completely healthy, the Ravens lack star power. Running back J.K. Dobbins, who missed the season because of a knee injury, is a good player, but he isn’t in the class of Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor or Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. The Ravens don’t have a receiver yet in the class of Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins, much less Hill, and they don’t have a pass rusher who can win one-on-one matchups like Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt or Kansas City’s Chris Jones.
That’s why DeCosta should be under the microscope this offseason. If the Ravens are going to be serious contenders, they need more impact players. In DeCosta’s three draft classes, there doesn’t appear to be many among them.
Of the 2019 class, only two of the eight picks — receiver Marquise Brown and guard Ben Powers — have had some impact, while third-round outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and receiver Myles Boykin have been disappointments. Brown has played well at times, but not to the level of expectations for the No. 25 overall pick.
He hasn’t proven to be a No. 1 receiver yet. DeCosta spoke last week about picking up Brown’s fifth-year option in 2022 worth about $13 million. When that happens, maybe DeCosta should talk to him about gaining some nastiness and playing harder even when Jackson is not playing. He should also tell him that he needs to make clutch catches in the end zone or along the sidelines in the final and biggest game of the season against Pittsburgh.
DeCosta insists that Brown needs more time, and maybe he does. But he could be on his way to saying the same thing about the 2020 draft class. Patrick Queen was taken in the first round and fellow inside linebacker Malik Harrison was one of four players taken in the third by Baltimore. It’s still early, but so far no one is jumping up and down over at the Castle in anticipation of them becoming the next Bart Scott or Adalius Thomas, much less Ray Lewis or Peter Boulware.
Guard Tyre Phillips, another third-round pick, can’t stay healthy enough to get better and receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II have become afterthoughts in the Ravens’ run-first offense. There is hope for defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington, but they need more time to mature as well — just hopefully less than Brown.
Free agency could be a way for the Ravens to improve, but they don’t like to play along.
‘’We’ve never been a big, huge free agency team,” said DeCosta, who officially became the team’s new general manager Jan. 11, 2019. “We’ve dabbled in it a little bit. We’ll continue to look for players that benefit the club in different ways, certainly. Right player, right price, as always. We’ll continue to look at players that we have whose contracts are expiring to try to get some deals done. I’m comfortable with that process.”
The Ravens are cheap and aren’t willing to give up draft picks in possible trades. In the DeCosta era, they have acquired some good players like defensive end Calais Campbell, Peters, running back Mark Ingram and guard Kevin Zeitler, but have had more disappointments like Yannick Ngakoue, Robert Griffin III, D.J. Fluker, Alejandro Villanueva, Jordan Richards, Earl Thomas III and Sammy Watkins.
So, if they don’t have those big-time players on their roster and won’t gamble in free agency, where will they get them from?
When Ozzie Newsome was the interim general manager shortly after the team moved to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996, expectations were low because the Ravens had little cash to spend in free agency. But that all changed when Steve Bisciotti became a minority owner in 2000 and later purchased the franchise from Art Modell on April 9, 2004.
DeCosta deserves as much patience as Newsome, even though the circumstances are different. The Ravens have shown they have enough quality depth to compete with most teams in the league, but not the star power to go deep into the postseason. Last week, DeCosta talked about possible changes, like getting younger on the defensive line and adding two offensive linemen.
He said he was confident in his team doctors and thought a lot of key players would return healthy for next season. Like coach John Harbaugh, DeCosta appeared excited and ready to move into next season, especially with the Ravens having nine picks in the first four rounds of the draft.
“If you think about our list, our master list, if we have 100 players ranked, we feel like all of those nine picks will probably come within our top 80 players,” DeCosta said. “So, if we do our job correctly, if we stack the board the right way [and] if we’re able to play the combinations correctly — what I mean by that is drafting the players with an eye toward maximizing each pick positionally — I think we have a really good chance to build some serious and quality depth to help this team be the best it can be.”
We’ll see. Combined with the ongoing contract negotiations with Jackson, this will be DeCosta’s most interesting offseason.
Everybody is watching.