xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

Five Things We Learned from the NFL scouting combine and Ravens GM Eric DeCosta’s first 2020 news conference

From Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta’s first comments on outside linebacker Matthew Judon’s pending free agency to the NFL scouting combine unearthing even more first-round wide receiver talents, here are five things we learned in Indianapolis last week.

The Ravens want Matthew Judon back, and the franchise tag remains their most likely next step.

Advertisement

With the NFL’s franchise tag window open and free agency less than three weeks away, the Ravens’ designating of outside linebacker Matthew Judon now seems to be a matter of when, not if.

At his news conference Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Ravens general manager DeCosta said that he’d “love to have some elite pass rushers” and that the Ravens “want to have a strong pass rush.” (From those shocking remarks, it’s safe to assume that he also wants peace on earth.)

Advertisement

With how the free-agent market is shaping up, the best way to do that is to retain Judon. According to ESPN, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are considering designating Shaquil Barrett with the franchise tag, not quarterback Jameis Winston. The Jacksonville Jaguars are reportedly expected to retain Maryland product Yannick Ngakoue. The Los Angeles Rams’ Dante Fowler Jr. is also a top tag candidate.

Only the Seattle Seahawks’ Jadeveon Clowney is set to hit free agency, and with leaguewide interest likely to drive his contract’s annual value over $20 million, the Ravens are in no position to win a bidding war.

Their only sure thing is Judon, and a franchise tag tender does not necessarily bind the Ravens to him through next season. They could trade him for draft picks and/or replacement pass rushers this offseason. (With only Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser returning at outside linebacker in 2020, they desperately need to fill out their depth chart.)

If the Ravens and Judon are miles apart on his perceived worth, they might never strike a long-term deal. But the tag’s greatest value is the time it buys the Ravens — not to find a potential trade partner (yet), but to find a middle ground in contract negotiations.

As DeCosta told Baltimore reporters Tuesday, the Ravens have to “use every mechanism that we can to build the best team we can.” Their best team next year would have a Pro Bowl-level pass rusher, and Judon can be just that.

The Ravens’ only mistake here would be letting him walk for nothing immediate in return. If he leaves, they’ll likely get a compensatory third-round draft pick in 2021 and a big defensive headache in 2020. If he’s tagged, they’ll get a consistently productive pass rusher — and the option to trade him, extend his contract or wait it out.

"If that's what we have to do, then we'll probably have to do it,” he said. “But there's other options as well on the table, [a] long-term deal being something that we would love to get accomplished. So we'll have to see how it all kind of works out."

Even if Marshal Yanda returns, the Ravens won’t be accused of neglecting their offensive line.

If Yanda retires this offseason, the Ravens would get another $7 million back in salary cap relief, plus whatever he’s no longer owed in signing bonus money. But that’s a relatively small price to pay for one of the NFL’s top linemen.

Ben Powers could be the team’s next Yanda, or at least its next Ben Grubbs, and the Ravens’ offensive line would still be significantly worse off without their longtime right guard. Powers was solid in his lone appearance last season, but a rapid ascent into the NFL’s upper tier of guards is unlikely. Remember, Yanda and Grubbs were both drafted in 2007, and neither made the Pro Bowl until 2011. Only the Quenton Nelsons of the world are Day 1 superstars.

The Ravens do not need Yanda for their offense to run wild or for the pocket to be protected next season. For as long as they have Lamar Jackson and his game-warping athleticism, defensive lines will be somewhat neutralized. It helps, too, to have Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., one of the NFL’s best tackle pairings.

But DeCosta indicated Tuesday that the Ravens attacks he wants to build will win in the trenches. The Ravens did not have the league’s best skill talent last year, but they were better protected than teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams. That matters.

Advertisement

"We're going to have depth, and we're going to have depth every year,” DeCosta said in Indianapolis. “Most years, we're going to add offensive linemen, and we'll continue to do that. … Offensive line's always going to be something that we're known for, and we're going to draft offensive linemen every single year.”

Lamar Jackson’s looming megadeal hangs over all other contract negotiations, even the important ones.

The most important deal on the Ravens’ books is Jackson’s rookie contract. The most important looming deal is Jackson’s extension. Which means the most important thing the Ravens can do now is bridge the gap between “first-round bargain” and “highest-paid player in franchise history” with as much financial responsibility as possible.

That will take some doing. DeCosta has followed through on his forward-thinking initiative to re-sign cornerstone players to long-term extensions before they reach free agency, where market forces drive up their value, oftentimes out of the Ravens’ spending limits. In the past year, kicker Justin Tucker, tight end Nick Boyle, fullback Patrick Ricard, safety Chuck Clark and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Tavon Young, among others, have all signed extensions.

But no players will be as expensive as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’s set to reach free agency in 2021, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who, assuming the Ravens exercise their fifth-year option, would hit the market the year after.

DeCosta told Baltimore reporters on Tuesday that the Ravens have already started to negotiate long-term extensions for both. There was no short-changing their talent; DeCosta called the All-Pro players “elite.” He also praised their representation, because, well, it doesn’t hurt to soften up the other side of the bargaining table, not when they could be asking for record-breaking money.

Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, a first-team All-Pro in 2017, became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman last year after signing a four-year, $72 million contract extension. The Carolina Panthers’ James Bradberry, one of the league’s top pending free-agent cornerbacks, is aiming for $15 million or more per year on a new deal, according to ESPN, about the annual average of Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard’s market-setting deal last year.

If the Ravens are committed to keeping Humphrey and Stanley, as they seem to be, they’ll likely have to commit to matching or exceeding those price tags. To keep Jackson, which seems inevitable, they’ll have to go way higher. But the sooner DeCosta can lock down Humphrey and Stanley, the easier it will be to surround Jackson with other talented players when he’s no longer a bargain.

Advertisement

With the Ravens’ No. 28 overall pick, the greatest draft value seems to be at wide receiver and inside linebacker.

Unless the Ravens find an extra first-round pick in the pocket of an old pair of jeans before April, it’s unlikely they move up from No. 28. For the first few hours of the draft’s opening night, all they can do is scratch names off their big board.

When the Ravens finally are on the clock, chances are that they’ll like what they see at wide receiver and inside linebacker. The prospects available at their three other pressing needs — edge rusher, defensive tackle and edge rusher — probably won’t be as enticing.

Before the combine, this receiver class was already considered deeper than the Mariana Trench, with NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah having 27 prospects with third-round grades or better and ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. expecting as many as 30 to be taken in the first three rounds. Then good receivers started running great times in Indianapolis, and the first round got potentially even more crowded.

LSU’s Justin Jefferson was college football’s top slot receiver last season, but there were concerns about his top-end speed. Then he ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, all but solidifying his first-round status. Baylor’s Denzel Mims, already an up-and-coming prospect after a standout Senior Bowl performance, eased some concerns about his lateral quickness with the quickest three-cone-drill time of any receiver. Now he might sneak into the first round, too.

Even some of the more disappointing showings at the position could work in the Ravens’ favor. Texas Christian’s Jalen Reagor, most recently projected to be taken by the mid-20s, tested well on the bench press and vertical leap but ran only a 4.47 40, far slower than what he’d hoped for. And Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr. will have surgery for a core muscle injury that could sideline him for up to six weeks, according to ESPN, raising further questions about the first-round talent’s injury history.

At inside linebacker, the talent pool is nowhere near as deep, but the Ravens’ top potential targets all fared well in testing. LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray posted a 4.52 and a 4.50 in the 40, though both suffered seemingly minor injuries during the drill. Zack Baun, an outside linebacker at Wisconsin who could be an off-ball linebacker in the NFL, was slower (4.65 in the 40), but showed impressive strength (24 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press) and quickness (fifth-best three-cone-drill time among linebackers)

The draft’s top prospect, Ohio State’s Chase Young, is an edge rusher, and another two, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, are expected to be among the first two dozen picks. Which for now would leave only Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos — and he might not make it past the edge rusher-needy Seattle Seahawks at No. 27.

Along the offensive line, the bulk of the top-end talent does not play inside. Among Jeremiah’s top 50 prospects, five are offensive tackles, and just one (Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, the No. 13 overall prospect) is a guard. At defensive tackle, expert opinions vary on the class’ second tier, but the Ravens could have a solid batch of fringe first-round options available.

Whether you liked what you heard from Indianapolis or not, don’t jump to any early conclusions about the offseason ahead.

Want to know how little to make of the comings and goings, of the risers and the fallers in Indianapolis? Just look at the most buzzed-about Ravens story lines this time last year.

They were reportedly one of the front-runners to land pending free agent Le’Veon Bell. Then free agency started, the star running back signed a megadeal with the New York Jets, and the Ravens set NFL rushing records with Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards in Lamar Jackson’s backfield.

Baltimore was a popular first-round landing spot for Alabama’s Josh Jacobs, especially after the running back said joining the Ravens would be “definitely a good look.” Then the connection weakened, and the Ravens passed on taking Jacobs in the first round to trade down and select Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.

Mississippi wide receiver DK Metcalf was a first-round lock, a near certainty to be taken before the Ravens’ No. 22 pick after an electrifying combine performance. Then, two months later, he wasn’t, and he fell to the Seahawks at the bottom of the second round.

For as much as DeCosta and his staff might have learned about the free-agent market and the 2020 draft class in Indianapolis, the Ravens can’t know how the next two months will unfold. And they wouldn’t share those details, even if they did.

After all, the Ravens didn’t even talk to Jackson at the 2018 combine. Sometimes, it’s easier to find that next big piece when other teams think you’re just not that interested.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement