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Big receivers? More linemen? As draft nears, Ravens must figure out what Lamar Jackson needs

Here is what Eric DeCosta wants for Lamar Jackson in the Ravens offense, as outlined in his first news conference as general manager: offensive linemen who are “big,” “tough” and “nasty.” Running backs who can get the “tough yard” and break “big gainers.” Tight ends who make plays.

(Wide receivers, too. DeCosta did not specifically mention wide receivers in this late-January laundry list, but he no doubt wants wide receivers who are great, or at the very least good.)

DeCosta desires what every NFL general manager does: the platonic ideal of an offensive depth chart. And it would be feasible, too, if not for the realities of the league’s salary cap, the unpredictability of player health and the ambitions of 31 competing franchises.

The Ravens already have their quarterback. That much, they’re sure of. For the foreseeable future, it is Lamar Jackson, who on his best days last season was a unicorn of a dual-threat passer, and on his worst looked like a rookie backup. DeCosta’s mandate this offseason, his first in charge of team personnel, has been to find the pieces who will fit with Jackson’s one-of-a-kind skill set.

Free agency brought to Baltimore some important parts. Running back Mark Ingram signed a three-year deal, and tight end Nick Boyle got an extension through 2021. But it’s this month’s NFL draft that could lay the foundation for the team’s next era.

The Ravens need wide receivers. Probably interior linemen, too. Most of all, though, they need 10 starters around Jackson next season capable of complementing their quarterback’s evolving talents, not limiting them. No team in the NFL’s new age has ever built around a quarterback like Jackson. That is at once an unprecedented challenge and a seismic opportunity.

“I think we embrace the challenge of building the best team we can, the best offense that we can, the best defense that we can. And we’ve got a quarterback with a unique skill set, and so how best can we make him better?” DeCosta said at the team’s predraft news conference this month.

“What types of players are we looking for? A lot of that is going to happen with input from the coaches and what they think is best for Lamar, and this is a really, really fun, exciting offseason, because we get a chance to look at other teams, and maybe even have the chance to draft some players or add some players that maybe other teams don’t like as much as we do because we’re doing something different. So we may be able to find or exploit that situation a little bit.”

When DeCosta jokingly opened the news conference by calling it the “Liars’ Luncheon,” an acknowledgment of the front office’s reluctance to share any insights into the Ravens’ draft plans, he was at least being consistent. Much of the organization’s offseason overhaul has been shrouded in secrecy.

With the promotion of Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, Jackson will lead a new attack in 2019 with some carryover, especially in their running game. But Roman said the team’s playbook would be rebuilt this offseason “from the ground up.” Coach John Harbaugh has said the offense will be “very diverse,” including new elements absent from last year’s schemes.

As for what those elements are? Or how far along they are in the offense’s construction? The Ravens, like any team, would prefer not to say. The team’s draft board is off limits, too.

Which makes projecting whom the Ravens might select at No. 22 overall — if they keep the pick — and later in the draft mostly guesswork. Which is the point for DeCosta and team officials. Jackson is a weapon during the season; subterfuge can be one in the offseason.

“That’s one of the fun things about the draft,” DeCosta said. “The strategic aspect of the draft, I love that.”

ESPN draft analyst and Baltimore native Mel Kiper Jr. said Jackson’s success, and therefore the team’s, will hinge on his consistency as a passer. Jackson completed 58.2 percent of his attempts last season; Joe Flacco’s career mark with the Ravens was 61.7 percent. Throws that were gimmes in 2018 could be more difficult in 2019 as defenses better prepare for the Ravens’ diverse ground game.

But throws that were difficult a season ago could be eased with an improved receiving corps, too. The Ravens already have up-and-coming tight ends, talented running backs and a highly rated group of pass blockers. At wide receiver, after the release of Michael Crabtree and departure of John Brown, there’s Willie Snead IV and a handful of players few would consider taking in a fantasy football league.

The Ravens need an outside receiver — Snead mainly plays inside — and the draft could deliver one, especially early.

“There are a lot of big receivers in this draft, in-the-area catchers,” Kiper said, noting Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who project as first- or second-day picks. “You have a lot of guys who have that big catch radius. And I think because of Lamar not always being super-accurate with some throws, if you get guys who can adjust to poorly thrown balls that also present the big target and the huge catch radius, then those guys might be a little bit more attractive.”

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, said DeCosta could also target smaller receivers such as Ohio State’s Parris Campbell and South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, who can take a short pass and then, well, “they do the rest” in the open field.

But in recent weeks, the Ravens have been increasingly linked to linemen such as North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury and Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy, both centers who could play guard. Even as Roman and team officials have stressed the importance of a more balanced offense, Jeremiah said a commitment to Jackson requires a commitment to finding players who can clear space for him.

“I think they have a plan in place that obviously builds around the tight ends and the running game,” he said. “They’re going to have to continue investing in the offensive line. That’s going to be a situation with the way they want to play, where you’re going to be drafting offensive linemen every year, just to make sure that remains a strength of your team.”

At the so-called Liars’ Luncheon, DeCosta was asked whether Jackson’s own strengths and weaknesses had changed how he looked at those of offensive players in the draft. DeCosta called it a “hard question.” It might’ve honestly, truly been just that.

But if he were appraising Metcalf or Bradbury or whomever any differently than he would have a year ago, when Flacco was still in Baltimore and Jackson was only a draft prospect, DeCosta wasn’t about to say.

“My own personal philosophy is just to find good football players,” he explained. “Who are the guys that make plays? Who are the guys that can dominate their opponents and play winning football? I think if we can find enough of those guys, we feel like we’ll have a great team.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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