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Eric DeCosta hopes this Ravens draft won’t be too different, but the coronavirus has already warped it

“I don’t think it’s really going to be that much different,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was saying Monday, and of course, he was right: The NFL draft was still starting April 23, the Ravens were still ordering their big board, and the world was still spinning.

But there he was, addressing a question during the team’s annual predraft meeting from his home office, his headset on, a Zoom video conference call running, socially distanced from a staff of scouts and coaches who help drive draft operations and a few dozen reporters, homebound themselves, trying to figure out the same thing: What does a Ravens draft in a pandemic look like?

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In many ways, exactly the same as before the coronavirus. In some others, totally different.

“I think the thing we come back to is, first and foremost — and it’s been this way ever since I know I got into the league — it’s really about the tape, how the guy plays, first and foremost,” DeCosta said. "We’ll spend a lot of time watching these guys. We’ll talk about it as a staff. ... So there are some challenges associated, nothing major, but we’re excited about the opportunity, and we think it’s going to work out well for us.”

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DeCosta believes the Ravens are well prepared for the NFL’s first virtual draft because they’ve done most of the legwork already. The team halted air travel less than a month ago, but by then, so much of its offseason scouting calendar had already been checked off: the 2019 college football season, the postseason all-star games, the league’s scouting combine, a few Pro Days across the country.

Where the coronavirus has made scouting difficult — interviews, Pro Day results, medical rechecks — the Ravens have innovated or found another source. Virtual meetings with prospects have replaced road interviews or visits to Baltimore. Analytics staffers have filled in the gaps on athletic testing. Scouts have worked their sources for the details that flesh out a scouting report.

“It’s been a little more challenging this year in terms of securing information,” DeCosta said. "Fortunately, we’ve been able to rely on our scouts, who I think are the best in the league, and also our coaches and their networks of contacts and people that can get us information to help us with the decision-making process. ...

"We’ve met with these players, and we are always trying to assess their personalities, their drivers, their motivation, their love of the game, determination, work ethic and things like that. It all kind of plays together like a huge mosaic, and in the end, we’ll look at that, we’ll assess and we’ll find the best guys we can to make our team better.”

But, DeCosta acknowledged, there are “probably some questions that we simply can’t answer.” Some of them might be character-related. Mississippi State inside linebacker Willie Gay Jr., one of the most athletic prospects at the position and a potential Day 2 pick for the linebacker-needy Ravens, was suspended eight games last season for what he said was cheating on a test in chemistry class. Ahead of the Bulldogs’ bowl game, he reportedly got into an altercation that left a teammate with a broken orbital bone.

Injuries are another variable. Take Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., a first-round prospect before he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the combine and underwent surgery for a lingering core muscle problem. With a history of injuries and a drop-off in production last season, even new Buffaloes coach Karl Dorrell, a former NFL assistant coach who had scouted Shenault, acknowledged to the Denver Post that there would be “question marks because of this injury he has.”

“How do we value those unknowns, and what impact do those unknowns have on the process?” DeCosta said. "That takes time. That’s not easy for some of us who like to have as much information as possible. It brings me back to what it was like in 1996-97, really, before the internet, before we had all this information, how we went about our jobs before we had the chance to bring in 30 players to Baltimore predraft and spend time with those guys. How did we accomplish our goals?

"And I think some of our best drafts we’ve ever had were during that time frame, so we know it can be done. Like John [Harbaugh] said, every team is operating under the same parameters and the same rules. We’ve come up with a plan, we’ll adjust and we’ll figure it out.”

On Monday afternoon, they were less certain how that plan would come together. Shortly before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to teams indicating that teams were expected to “conduct their draft operations remotely, with club personnel separately located in their homes," DeCosta said he didn’t know where he’d run the Ravens’ draft.

More than anything, he just wanted to be prepared for the opportunity. That meant taking calls from coaches and scouts, reviewing film, ranking prospects, deciding how to make a 14-2 team even better. Business as usual, in other words.

Until, well, it isn’t. “I don’t have a lot of people knocking at this door,” DeCosta said Monday, pointing behind him, to a room with a bookcase, some framed photos and a potted plant, “other than my kids when it’s lunchtime.”

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