With the NFL draft behind him and an offensive tackle finally signed, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has had some time to talk this week.
On Tuesday, as news spread that Alejandro Villanueva had agreed to a two-year deal, DeCosta was appearing on Mad Dog Sports Radio’s “Schein on Sports.” On Thursday, he sat down for an extensive virtual interview with Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
They talked about everything from DeCosta’s two-plus decades in Baltimore to the unpredictability of draft classes to contract negotiations with quarterback Lamar Jackson. Here are a few highlights.
Here’s the deal
In March, DeCosta was asked whether he expected Jackson’s mother, who manages his career, to represent Jackson in contract negotiations. DeCosta declined to comment and deferred to Jackson, who is signed through 2022. (Jackson has not been made available to reporters since before the Ravens’ season ended.)
Asked Thursday how Jackson’s nontraditional representation would “complicate things” for the Ravens, DeCosta said he wasn’t sure it was complicating. He also couldn’t say it was simplifying. DeCosta has served as general manager for less than three years, and a contract extension for Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, would amount to by far the biggest deal in franchise history.
“I think that the biggest thing is communication, for me and Lamar to communicate,” he said. “We’ve already done a deal with Lamar. We did a rookie deal with Lamar. Now, obviously, it wasn’t the same, what we did. We understand some of the complications because we did that prior deal. This is a much different deal with a much different structure.”
Without a third party in the negotiations, DeCosta said transparency becomes even more important. He acknowledged the difficulty in having to tell players why the Ravens might not value them at a particular level, but said having direct contact “really does improve communication.”
“I hope that if Lamar has questions, he can get the answers,” DeCosta said. “I know he has people that he trusts and respects that can help him and advise him, because this is a big deal. And we want to do it right. We want to do something he feels really good about, and we want to do something that we feel really good about as well.”
DeCosta also said the Ravens never considered taking a young quarterback early in last week’s draft, which would’ve allowed them to move on from Jackson before committing to a megadeal.
“We’ve got some good young quarterbacks that we like in Trace McSorley and [Tyler] Huntley, and obviously, Lamar, we look at him as really a tremendous person and a great talent and just a guy that we know we can build this team around,” he said. “So we’re very excited about the future. It’s just really great to have a bunch of guys working together on offense that really care, and we’re a different offense. We like that. "
How highly does DeCosta think of the Ravens’ eight-player draft class? “I’d probably give ‘em a C-plus, B,” he said.
It wasn’t entirely clear that he was joking. What was clear: it didn’t really matter what he thought of the group only a week after the draft. An appraisal this early doesn’t mean much.
“I mean, nobody really knows,” he said. “You know, some of the best drafts I thought we ever had ended up probably being some of the worst drafts we ever had. And then on the flip side of that, you’ll have a draft that looks average on paper, but then as you go back and look at it four, five years down the road, you just can’t believe how luck you got.
“So there’s so many factors that go into a draft. One of the biggest things is just players staying healthy and getting a chance to play. Durability is a critical thing for players. Guys that stay healthy and play usually end up playing pretty well and contributing. And then sometimes you take a guy … pretty high, and the first thing that happens to him in training camp is, he gets hurt. And that doesn’t bode well for your draft class.”
It might be hard to project how a pick will turn out. But it’s pretty easy, DeCosta joked, to tell how the draft’s treated him. He said there are typically three types of you’ve-just-been-picked conversations: the call to the player who expected to be selected, the call to the player who’s overcome with emotion, and the call to the “pissed off” player.
“And we had a few of those this year, too,” DeCosta said. “They’re a little bit surly. They’re a little bit sullen. They’re a little bit short with you on the phone. They’re very happy and relieved, but they’re not over-the-top ecstatic or emotional, because they wanted to be picked higher than they were picked.”
No NFL franchise has been more aggressive in pursuing compensatory draft picks than the Ravens. It’s why DeCosta was happy to sign guard Kevin Zeitler to a three-year deal just days after the New York Giants released him; only unrestricted free agents count in the NFL’s compensatory accounting. It’s also why DeCosta waited until after the draft to pursue a tackle like Villanueva, who, had he signed earlier, might’ve cost the Ravens a projected pick in next year’s draft.
DeCosta said Thursday that he didn’t want to dive too deep into the subject. He did anyway.
“What we try to do, No. 1, is we look at the surplus or we look at the deficit — so how many players have we signed? How many players have we lost?” he explained. “That gives us an indication of how many comp picks we’re going to get. Then we look at the type of comp pick that we would expect to get based on the contracts of the players who left.
“So we can tell by the range of the average of the salary what that’s going to be, what bucket that’s going to fall into. And then we sort of talk about what we want to preserve and what picks would be worth preserving versus what picks are we comfortable giving away to get a good player. Once you get to that point, then you have to look at preserving those picks and how much money you could spend on a contract and still preserve those picks. And there’s a slippery slope there and there’s a fine line there as to what that contract average has to be. …
“I think this is something, over time, that we’ve really done a really good job with. In the early days of the comp picks, we were very involved, but we didn’t necessarily understand all the nuances, and I think over time, [Ravens senior vice president of football operations] Pat Moriarty, [director of football administration] Nick Matteo, [executive vice president] Ozzie Newsome, they’ve done a really, really good job of understanding this complex thing and helping to help us make decisions that work for us.”
The Ravens are expected to receive three compensatory picks in next year’s draft, two because of free-agent departures. When every pick is something of a lottery ticket, having more never hurts, DeCosta said.
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“The more picks you have, the better chance you’re going to have of building a strong team,” he said. “So we’ve always been one of those teams. We’ve tried to collect as many draft picks as possible, understanding that the draft picks are currency that we can use. And the thing is, yes, we have the draft picks to pick, but now we also have the draft picks to move up, to move down, to trade for future-year picks. They create an amount of flexibility that we think is beneficial to the club.”
A ‘hard’ trade
In his first comments since trading Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs for a bounty of draft picks, DeCosta said last week that it “wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, for us to make, but it was one I felt like we had to make.”
On Thursday, he noted his personal connection to Brown, whose late father, Orlando Sr., also played for the Ravens.
“When you trade a good player, it’s tough,” he said. “When you trade a good player who’s a great person, that’s tougher. … We try to be a team that’s going to do what’s best for the club. But we also want to accommodate our players, if possible.
“I’ve known Orlando since he was a little boy because of his father’s involvement with this franchise. And Orlando’s a guy that does everything the right way. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s got a high ‘care’ factor. I would’ve loved, and I think [coach] John [Harbaugh] would’ve loved, to keep Orlando here long term.”
With Brown’s desire to play left tackle, where the Ravens already have All-Pro Ronnie Stanley, and with other players coming up for contract extensions, DeCosta said it would’ve been “very tough” to keep Brown in Baltimore. Not that the Ravens’ trade partner made the deal any easier to agree to.
“It was probably harder to trade him to the Chiefs, an organization that we respect, a very talented organization, a Super Bowl-winning organization,” DeCosta said. “That was a challenge. But again, as a GM, I’ve got to look at the short term of the franchise and also the long term of the franchise. And for us to get what we did given the parameters we’re under, it seemed like the smart thing to do.”