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Baltimore Ravens

Five things we learned from Eric DeCosta and John Harbaugh at Ravens’ season wrap-ups

Coming off a dispiriting end to their 2021 season, the Ravens’ key decision-makers, general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh, have not lost faith in quarterback Lamar Jackson, but they know they’ll need better health, fresher legs on defense and a more reliable offensive line to put the team back on track for 2022.

Here are five things we learned from the team’s end-of-season news conferences last week:

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The Ravens remain committed to building around Lamar Jackson, but that doesn’t mean his extension is coming soon.

Neither Harbaugh nor DeCosta showed any hesitation in portraying Jackson as the centerpiece of the Ravens’ future. He missed five games because of illness and injury in 2021, and his efficiency declined sharply after a sublime start, but DeCosta said “nothing has changed” regarding the brain trust’s faith in their quarterback.

“Lamar’s a Pro Bowl quarterback, and he played some brilliant football this year,” the Ravens general manager said Friday as he reviewed the state of the franchise. “Certainly, when you consider the turmoil we had on our offensive line, at the running back position, that’s a factor. Lamar’s health this year, he had some issues; he was sick, he hurt his foot. … I think there’s a lot of upside with our offense, and Lamar’s a big part of that. He’s the right person to do it. He’s a leader. He’s beloved. He’s a phenomenally talented player.”

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Four days earlier, Harbaugh spoke of Jackson’s determination to make the most of his offseason and put 2021 behind him. “There’s no excuse — that’s how he looks at it,” he said.

That does not mean Jackson will become the latest young quarterback to sign a jaw-dropping contract, at least not over the next few months.

As unusual a talent as Jackson is on the field, he’s just as unusual a figure off it. Not only is he negotiating directly with DeCosta on a potential extension, he does not seem to feel any great urgency to lock in a deal that could bring him roughly $45 million per year.

“No, we haven’t talked about it yet,” he said the day after the season ended. “But I’ve got to worry about getting back right, right now, and getting ready for this offseason.”

DeCosta has heard the same message from Jackson when they have spoken.

“I would say that we’re working at Lamar’s pace,” he said, noting that he and Jackson have discussed a potential extension five or six times over the last year. “He’s comfortable with where we are right now. I think he feels like we have a lot of unfinished business. He has a lot of unfinished business. He wants to win the division. He wants to win the Super Bowl.”

He added that any movement toward a deal with Jackson will likely be “based on his urgency.”

This isn’t an immediate problem for the Ravens, who have planned their salary cap around the projected cost of a long-term deal with Jackson. They’re scheduled to pay him $23 million this season on his fifth-year option, an acceptable figure in the context of their budget. DeCosta has the franchise tag in his back pocket should negotiations carry into next offseason.

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We’re simply used to seeing more contract activity around franchise quarterbacks who are nearing the conclusions of their rookie deals. The question will keep coming up no matter how Jackson performs when he returns to the field later this year. Apparently, he’s fine with that.

The injuries that ruined 2021 will factor significantly in planning for 2022.

The Ravens would like to forget a season in which they never lined up with the team DeCosta and Harbaugh had worked to build. Injuries defanged their running attack and secondary before they played a single game and weakened every corner of their roster as the year carried on.

It’s natural to speak of renewal as our gaze turns toward the 2022 team, but reality won’t be so tidy for DeCosta and Harbaugh as they design their next 53-man puzzle.

DeCosta acknowledged his mistake in counting on left tackle Ronnie Stanley to return at a Pro Bowl level after a terrible ankle injury cut short his 2020 season. Instead, Stanley played just one game and needed another surgery. Without him, the Ravens spent the whole year scrambling, and often failing, to find adequate tackle play.

Well, DeCosta will face the same question this offseason. He’s optimistic Stanley will return and play “winning football,” but can he assume that will be the case, as he’d like to with a player who will count $18.5 million against the salary cap? Probably not.

“It can be challenging,” he said of assessing a roster that’s still beset by injuries. “For instance, at the running back position, two of our best players, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, [had] season-ending injuries within a week of each other, and then Justice Hill. So, we’re a little bit right now in a situation of, ‘When do these guys come back?’ We have a lot of confidence that they will come back, but the timing is such that we’re just not sure when they will come back. So, then the question begs, well, how do they address that position? You have to have some running backs. You have to have some guys who can carry the ball for you — especially us, we’re a running team.”

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He will have to make a similar judgment at outside linebacker, where Tyus Bowser is working to come back from a torn Achilles tendon after he was perhaps the team’s most consistent defender in 2021.

We know from Harbaugh that the Ravens are questioning everything they do when it comes to offseason workouts and practice schedules. They regard injuries as an enemy that can be subdued if not defeated. But even if they discover better paths forward, the toll from 2021 will linger into next season.

The Ravens know they need fresher legs and more turnovers on defense.

On Wednesday, Harbaugh introduced his new defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, who promised to hit opponents with adaptable schemes that would “create doubt at all times.” For Macdonald to replicate the success he had in one year at Michigan, however, he’ll need a younger, healthier pool of players than his predecessor, Don “Wink” Martindale, had to work with in 2021.

DeCosta had long viewed this offseason as the juncture when the Ravens would need to revamp their defensive front. Expect interior linemen and defensive ends to be near the top of his shopping list for free agency and the draft.

“We need to get younger, for sure,” he said. “This year, we had a lot of grizzly warhorses up there.”

He has talked to one of those warhorses, 35-year-old Calais Campbell, about putting off retirement and returning to the Ravens in 2022. “He still plays at a high level and has a great attitude,” DeCosta said of the veteran free agent. “He’s great for the younger guys.”

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DeCosta watched in horror as injuries robbed the Ravens secondary of its depth and playmaking verve. He expects Marcus Peters to be back at cornerback in 2022 along with $98.75-million man Marlon Humphrey, but what about a ballhawking safety to complement Chuck Clark on the back end? The Ravens have never replaced Eric Weddle’s 2016 and 2017 production in that role.

“I would say, just in general, especially on the back end, our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us, and I would love to see us make the play this year coming up — intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive,” DeCosta said. “So, if the opportunity presents itself and we see a dynamic corner or a dynamic safety, of course, that would be something that would be attractive to us.”

He also hinted that the Ravens will be in position to draft an immediate-impact pass rusher — they have usually been reluctant to chase such players in free agency — if they stay at the No. 14 spot in the first round of the draft.

The fixes on offense will start up front.

Harbaugh said “the basis” for his team’s plans to unlock Jackson’s passing talent and recharge the No. 1 rushing attack of 2019 and 2020 will be more reliable offensive line play. DeCosta backed that up by saying he will probably add two linemen in the offseason, either in the draft or through a targeted free-agent strike such as the 2021 signing of right guard Kevin Zeitler.

“One of the — probably — points of emphasis this year will be the offensive line,” he said. “I think just in general, what we do know, is for us to be the very best offense we can be, we’ve got to have a strong, commanding offensive line that can control people at the point of attack.”

Zeitler did his part, as did center Bradley Bozeman, who’s headed for free agency, and swingman Patrick Mekari, who signed an extension. But with Stanley out and Alejandro Villanueva delivering Jekyll and Hyde performances as his fill-in, the Ravens allowed 57 sacks, second worst in the league. They face more questions at tackle going into 2022, with Stanley recovering from another ankle surgery, Ja’Wuan James trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and Villanueva contemplating retirement.

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In addition to outside help, DeCosta said the Ravens need the young linemen on their roster — guard Ben Cleveland and guard/tackle Tyre Philips come to mind — to become “the players we expected them to be when we drafted them.”

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A stable, dominant line was the (relatively) unsung engine behind the Ravens’ marvelous offensive performance in 2019. They have much work to do to reclaim that standard, and everything they hope to build around Jackson depends on it.

The Ravens remain just as committed to building from within (see Marquise Brown).

DeCosta did not pause even a beat when asked if the Ravens will pick up their fifth-year option on Brown, his first draft pick as general manager.

“Honestly, for his skill set, for what he brings to the table, the fifth-year option, in my mind, if you look at receivers and what they’re making now, it looks like a bargain,” he said. “He’s just a nice piece, and honestly, if we didn’t bring him back, we’d be trying to find another receiver.”

It’s easy to find Ravens fans far less bullish on Brown’s future after his blah second half. But we have to recognize that his dip in explosiveness correlated directly with Jackson’s health woes and struggles against the blitz. When his close pal was riding high at quarterback, Brown produced like a No. 1, or at least an outstanding No. 2, wide receiver (through eight games, he was on pace for 1,449 yards and 13 touchdowns with an average of 14.8 yards per catch).

DeCosta’s confidence in the 2019 first-round pick speaks to his unwavering belief in constructing the roster on a base of homegrown talent. He joked that he was angry when the Philadelphia Eagles recently passed the Ravens for the league lead in extensions inked over the last three years.

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Asked about impending free agents Bozeman, Patrick Ricard and Anthony Averett, he offered no guarantees that the Ravens would come to deals. “You can’t sign everybody back — that’s a fact of this game, that’s the NFL game,” he said. “You just can’t do it, especially when you’ve got players that are making good amounts of money.”

But we don’t have to listen to DeCosta for long to know that he still prizes drafting, developing and retaining over the big-ticket shopping sprees of March. Just like Ozzie Newsome taught him.


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