MOBILE, ALA. — One year ago, the Ravens' coaching staff was busy preparing for Super Bowl XLVII instead of evaluating draft prospects at the Senior Bowl.
It's an entirely different situation this week.
Following an 8-8 season where they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Ravens' offseason has launched much earlier than they had hoped. And the majority of the Ravens' coaches are at the Senior Bowl -- except for coach John Harbaugh as he continues to interview offensive coordinator candidates back in Baltimore -- along with general manager Ozzie Newsome and the scouting department.
As the Ravens head into a challenging time where they're faced with several personnel decisions, including unresolved contract situations for outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, tight end Dennis Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, their focus this week is on the upcoming draft class. Between practices Wednesday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, The Baltimore Sun conducted the following interview with Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta.
What's the mindset like now for the organization about what to do after a year where there were so many problems?
"It is disappointing, but we're going to move on. We're going to use these feelings of disappointment really as momentum for us to attack this offseason with tremendous enthusiasm and diligence. Fortunately, we've been in this position before. We have tremendous confidence in our coaches and scouts and we'll try to make the best decisions for our team based on the culture that John and Ozzie have tried to build long-term here in Baltimore. We'll get this thing turned around for our fans and the Baltimore community.
"I think sometimes you have to get sand kicked in your face a little bit to respond appropriately. We're disappointed by the end of the season. We certainly think we're capable of turning this thing around and getting back in the playoffs this year. We have a lot of confidence in our players that they'll respond to the challenge and get us back to where we belong."
There's been a lot of talk about this team needing to upgrade at wide receiver, tight end, offensive line and free safety. What do you see as the primary needs?
"What we saw after this season is we have a lot of needs at a lot of positions. It's bad to be in that position, I think, as an organization, but I think in terms of building your team it's good because we have the flexibility to draft players at a wide variety of positions. We think we need some running back depth. That definitely would be a position of need. Tight end, we have some uncertainty at that position with different players' contracts being up (Pitta, Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark). So, that's a strong position we think for us to look at in this year's draft.
"Offensive line did not perform up to our standards this year. We'd like to add some additional young players to help us to bolster the strength of that unit, linebacker as well. If we have a chance to select a good, young linebacker, that would be good. Safety, we'd like to address that position in this year's draft. With a lot of good players in the draft, we have a chance to get better at a lot of different positions. And that will be our focus."
Depending on how the coin flip goes with the Dallas Cowboys in February at the NFL scouting combine, you'll either have the 16th or 17th overall pick of the first round. Do you feel good about your chances of obtaining a player who can make an immediate impact?
"That's how we see it. As great as it is to be picking at the end of each round, which is an indicator that you had a good season the year before, it's hard to find good players year after year at the back of each of these rounds and the league has created a system that's really based on creating a sense of parity and an even level of playing field. It's exciting for us when we see the quality of this year's draft. With the top of the draft, we think we have the chance to get an impact player pretty quickly.
"It's a deep draft. If you consider the fact that quarterbacks typically will get drafted pretty high and add those guys into the mix, there's a really good chance that a good player is going to fall down to us. We've had some success in years past thinking about years where we got Suggs , [defensive tackle] Haloti [Ngata in 2006], [cornerback] Chris McAlister . We've been able to find a very high level player from pick No. 10 on. We're excited about that possibility this year."
After drafting five players last year who played in the Senior Bowl, how important is this all-star game to the Ravens?
"Just getting a chance to see these guys compete against each other on a very even playing field, to see these guys respond to NFL coaching, the drill work, the ability to interview these guys at night, our scouts do a really good job of getting a profile on all these guys, building a personality profile of all of these players, that's a critical piece to the draft puzzle. The Senior Bowl allows us collectively as a staff to talk to these guys, to see these guys up close and personal on the practice field, to get a sense of their body types, personalities. It's a huge litmus test for us to put these guys through to see how they respond, how they compete, how they hold up to the pro style of coaching to different drills to being against a better level of competition. It's a huge thing for us in the evaluation process.
[Senior Bowl executive director and former Ravens executive] Phil Savage, obviously with his Baltimore Ravens ties, this is a great job he does each year. He's tweaked the format, which I think is very scout-friendly. He's built an incredible roster of players this year. For us, it's one-stop shopping. It makes our job very easy."
The NFL has moved the draft to May 8, citing scheduling conflicts at Radio City Music Hall in New York. How do you see the extra time affecting the scouting process?
"Anytime the league tweaks the schedule or makes changes with the draft process we take it as an opportunity to get better. We will tweak some things. We'll do some different things schedule-wise do some different things with the coaches and scouts and we'll use the time wisely. It gives us more time to evaluate players, more time to answer unanswered questions and to get the board lined up. We'll do the best we can to make the best decisions possible for the Ravens."
What's your take on your rookie class from last season, including first-round safety Matt Elam?
"We're excited about all those guys. Matt played a lot this year, and we think he's going to play better and better and better. We're very excited about him. [Second-round inside linebacker] Arthur Brown came back from an injury early in training camp, and his ceiling is unlimited with his athletic skills. We think [third-round defensive tackle] Brandon Williams flashed for us this year with a very, very good preseason, explosive guy. He's really going to have the opportunity to play next year and play well. I think the offseason with him is going to be big. I think [fourth-round outside linebacker] John Simon showed a lot of pass rush skill. A good, young developmental player, his future is very bright. [Fourth-round fullback] Kyle Juszczyk did an outstanding job on special teams for us this year. He's going to be a guy again who should probably find a role on offense, very good hands. We're very, very happy with him.
"[Fifth-round offensive tackle] Ricky Wagner played for us in spurts, did a good job for us and he's going to be a guy who's really going to compete to play. [Sixth-round center Ryan Jensen] is smart, tough, very dedicated, he works his craft. He'll compete with [incumbent starting center] Gino [Gradkowski] and compete with all those interior guys and A.Q. Shipley. I think we'll have a chance to have very good depth and see who emerges from that group of guys. [Seventh-round receiver Aaron Mellette] showed some things in the preseason, made some catches down the field. Anytime you have some young players who compete for one or two spots that's what you're trying to get to have them duke it out."
What do you glean from looking back at the draft picks that don't work out for whichever reason?
"I think what we really try to do is pretty simple. We watch the tape and try to build a consensus with our scouts and coaches. We try to find players that appeal to us in different ways, guys that are versatile, smart and tough who we think would fit in very well. We bring them in. We get them coached up. We develop them in the offseason and we hope that they become what we thought they were going to be. We've made mistakes. Hopefully, we hit on a few guys down the road.
"I think we've got a wonderful structure in place with our scouting staff and our coaches working very, very well together. When you have the scouting, the coaching and the strength and conditioning program all working together, most of our guys really do improve. I think that's been the biggest part of the success we've had."