Here’s how much Eric DeCosta cares about the NFL draft.
A few years back, during the Ravens’ all-day scouting preparations, he used a 15-minute break to meet Kevin Byrne, the team’s executive vice president of public and community relations, for a brisk game of racquetball.
Almost immediately, DeCosta hit the ground stomach-first and muttered, “I think I tore my Achilles.”
Ravens trainer Mark Smith quickly confirmed the diagnosis and said DeCosta should proceed to a doctor’s office. “Look,” DeCosta told Byrne, “can you just find Ozzie [Newsome] and ask him if he could delay the meeting ’til 1:30?”
He then ordered Smith to stick his foot in a tub of ice so he could essentially freeze it for the duration of the afternoon draft meeting. He had a cast put on that evening and was back for another round of meetings the next morning.
They describe a former Colby College English major who has thought deeply about the story he’ll craft for the franchise’s next era but who insists on maintaining an informal work environment peppered with practical jokes and “Game of Thrones” banter. They describe a self-deprecating New Englander whose probing curiosity matches that of the team’s billionaire owner, Steve Bisciotti.
DeCosta has been the Ravens’ general manager in waiting for more than a decade and has held the actual job since January. But if the opening of free agency was his test screening for fans, the April 25-27 draft will serve as the gala debut for his regime. The draft was the forum where Newsome put his boldest stamp on the franchise. And those who’ve spent years working with or observing both men say Newsome and DeCosta are so tightly bound that there will be no sweeping stylistic or philosophical shift in the way the Ravens pick players.
“I think sometimes people would think that maybe I’d be embarrassed that I started off as an intern now that I’m a GM, that I want to forget that,” Eric DeCosta said. “To be honest with you, I cherish that."
“I think the perfect word is seamless,” longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s had the experience of being in that room and watching how Ozzie takes over a room — building a consensus, but you have to make the final call. … Building that strong consensus with great football minds is what has allowed Ozzie to have the success he’s had, and I think Eric obviously understands that very well. The Ravens should be in great hands.”
DeCosta will tell you he remains a scout at heart. Ravens senior personnel assistant George Kokinis, who goes back to 1996 with DeCosta, has noticed that ever since his friend became the team’s general manager, he has arrived to work hours earlier so he can watch film uninterrupted before administrative demands consume his day.
“He views himself as a scout first, even though his overall knowledge of football is broad and impressive,” Newsome said. “Hall of Famers like Ron Wolf, Bill Polian and now Gil Brandt view themselves as scouts first. Probably 90 percent of GMs right now have a deep scouting background. … It helps Eric lead our group. They know he understands the world of scouting. He was in the trenches for many years. He has been in the Hampton Inns in Nowhere, Iowa, and Mississippi.”
DeCosta has aspired to run a professional football team since he was 6 years old, an age when most of us want to be quarterbacks, astronauts or gallivanting archaeologists. He recalls attaching his allegiance to the Dallas Cowboys in the run-up the 1978 Super Bowl because he was fascinated with the way Brandt, Tex Schramm and Tom Landry built “America’s Team.” Those behind-the-scenes masters, more than Tony Dorsett and Roger Staubach, were his heroes.
The self-described overachiever and worrier had to enter professional football from a side angle, because he lacked the athletic skill to play for an elite college program, much less in the NFL.
After he finished his career as an undersized, relentless linebacker at Division III Colby, DeCosta worked as a coaching intern as a graduate student at Trinity College and fired off front-office applications to all 32 NFL teams. Thirty responded with rejection letters, which remain in DeCosta’s desk drawer as a reminder of his scrappy origins. But he got his foot in the door as a training camp intern with the Washington Redskins in 1995.
His work there led to a positive recommendation with the Cleveland Browns, who were about to move to Baltimore, where DeCosta would begin his career as a jack of all trades for a team that did not even have a logo when he arrived.
“I remember picking him up [for his interview],” Kokinis said with a laugh. “We’ll just say he’s wearing a lot better clothes now.”
The Ravens were a smaller organization then, and even as a 25-year-old with a nothing resume, DeCosta found his way into the “barber shop,” a space where Newsome talked football with colleagues such as James “Shack” Harris, Phil Savage, John Wooten, Brian Billick and Marvin Lewis.
Ever since the Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996, Eric DeCosta has been in the shadows of either head coaches or general managers. Now, it’s his time to step into the spotlight and under the microscope.
“Eric would write things on the board to take notes,” Newsome recalled. “He knew his place in there, but he also added a good nugget every now and then. Eric started separating himself from the other young guys.”
He did it in part with unusual displays of will. Kokinis recalled a balmy spring day when a young DeCosta donned a rubber top and ran past the point of vomiting to meet a time goal Newsome had tossed out for their daily jog.
“It was like, ‘All right, I guess you are ready for the grind of the NFL,’ ” Kokinis said.
DeCosta didn’t mind taking coach Ted Marchibroda’s car for a tune-up (keeping the change for a bit of side income) or holding his headset on the sideline. He’d greet players at the airport and ferry them to doctor’s appointments. He took to heart the advice of offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz, who told him to never worry about his next job when he could excel at the one he had.
“The biggest thing I noticed about Eric is that he seemed to be everywhere,” Ravens senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty remembered. “It was like there were maybe three or four Eric DeCostas. But not only that — the people he was reporting to, senior people, had this immediate respect for him.”
The industrious young man rose steadily to become an area scout and then the team’s director of college scouting in 2003.
In a business where most rising executives have to jump teams to reach the highest level, DeCosta has been the Ravens’ general manager in waiting since 2007, when Bisciotti first approached him about eventually succeeding Newsome.
“I think that speaks to his character,” said Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, who first met DeCosta when they were on the road as competing scouts. “He’s an extremely loyal person, to his organization, to his family and to the people he’s worked with and worked for.”
DeCosta is a husband and father of three who frequently slips mentions of his family into football news conferences. He’s tried to extend the comfort he feels at home to work.
Though he’s technically new at his current job, he goes back decades with many of the high-ranking officials in the Ravens’ front office; they grew up in the NFL together. Moriarty, for example, refers to DeCosta as his best friend in or out of football and is godfather to the general manager’s youngest son. He’s also quick to describe his boss as an annoying little brother.
Taking that vibe a step further, Byrne referred to DeCosta and Newsome as “married.”
“They see things similarly, and they’re able to disagree without divorcing,” he said. “I think Ozzie respected early that he had found someone who saw the game similarly but at the same time, a guy who would say, ‘I don’t see it that way, Ozzie.’ ”
Byrne always noticed that when deliberations became particularly tense in the Ravens’ draft room, DeCosta and Newsome would roll their chairs close together in the corner — a brain trust within the brain trust.
As close as mentor and protege are, however, they’re not the same, according to those who’ve worked with both men. DeCosta is more vocal and also more apt to seek new scientific and technological methods of evaluating players.
“He’s always been an outside-the-box thinker, always tried to challenge what the norms are,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who worked as a Ravens personnel assistant and scout from 2003 to 2007.
DeCosta’s curiosity has led him to study the NBA and Major League Baseball as he looks for the best practices in evaluating talent.
“I think we want to be innovative in terms of whether we use analytics, technology, new teaching principles, new ways of looking at players, new ways of interviewing players and getting to know their personalities and their makeups and things like that,” he said in explaining his vision.
That mentality helped him bond with Bisciotti, who often prods his executives to consider unfamiliar modes of thinking. “What about this?” they both like to say in meetings.
Both DeCosta and Bisciotti have also joked that they need the ever-patient Newsome to calm them down at times.
For the first time in Ravens history, Ozzie Newsome won't run the team's draft room this year. But his picks have been essential to the team's identity, and his counsel will continue to inform the moves of current general manager Eric DeCosta.
Newsome, however, said DeCosta’s intelligence is never more apparent than when they disagree on a player.
“He loves to scrimmage — that’s what we do here — and he does it with the best of them,” the Ravens’ former general manager said. “He’s an outside-the-box thinker, but his football beliefs are based on substance, history and collected wisdom. He can see the unintended consequences that come with certain big decisions. He’ll push the envelope to make sure we’re covering all possibilities.
“He’s like a lawyer sometimes, trying to take you where he wants to go. He’ll use bait and switch to make sure we’re covering everything. He creates some unbelievable exchanges. We can go at it. We can push each other’s buttons getting to the right decision. I’ve seen him do it with others — he can get the best thoughts from others.”
It’s not surprising then that the NFL draft, an annual game of innovation, nerve and subterfuge, suits DeCosta’s personality.
“I think in other organizations, that might be the case,” Moriarty said. “But in ours, no.”
DeCosta will even keep the same seat, leaving the chair at the front of the room to Newsome, whom he joked might be “flustered” by having to move.
He has run the team’s draft meetings since 2004, adjusting the board by hand before the Ravens went digital for this year. Odds are he’ll be more outspoken than Newsome, who always held his opinions close, even at tense junctures. But he’ll strive for the same open discourse.
“I want to make sure — and I’ve learned from Ozzie — I want to make sure I’m a good listener, and I don’t want to be the person that has to speak the loudest or speak at the last moment,” DeCosta said. “I want to make sure we trust our people, and they have a chance to speak and influence the board.”