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For Ravens GM Eric DeCosta, improvements start with an identity: ‘We’re a running team’

“He’s got a great relationship with this organization," said DeCosta about Jackson. "He’s a very easy person to talk to and certainly deserves a contract."

At his introductory news conference two years ago, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said he must’ve seen “The Godfather” about 250 times over his 47 years of life. It was a fitting choice, as far as classic movies go; football is as much about family as it is about power.

So when DeCosta was asked at Monday’s season-ending news conference about how to lure free-agent wide receivers to Baltimore, his mouth curled into a grin. His answer started with his inner Corleone. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” he said.

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He was only half-joking. But ahead of one of the most pivotal offseasons in franchise history, “The Godfather” might as well have inspired DeCosta’s big-picture plans for the Ravens offense: Leave what they don’t need. Take what they do best.

Five days after coach John Harbaugh threw his support behind coordinator Greg Roman — “Our offense has won us a lot of football games here, and we’re not apologizing for that for one second,” he said Wednesday — DeCosta doubled down on the Ravens’ offensive philosophy. They are who they’ve been for over two years now.

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“We’re a running team,” he said twice Monday over a 50-minute question-and-answer session, and it’s an identity that will guide how the Ravens build their attack.

It’s why DeCosta and Harbaugh are hopeful Jackson will sign a long-term extension this offseason or next. With the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson making $45 million and $39 million annually, respectively, it won’t be cheap. But the price of a starting quarterback rises every year, and DeCosta said Jackson, through his NFL Most Valuable Player highs and postseason lows, “certainly deserves” a new contract.

It’s why the Ravens believe an improved passing game starts up front, along the offensive line, which allowed a combined eight sacks in an AFC wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans and a divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills. Losing All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8, DeCosta said, was “definitely a tough deal to handle.”

And it’s why the Ravens, with whatever salary cap space they might have, don’t seem too intent on chasing after a headlining wide receiver in free agency. “There are a lot of things we can do” to improve the team’s passing game, DeCosta said; Harbaugh’s already said that he’s not going to beg one to come help.

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“We want to have really good players at every position,” DeCosta said. “We want playmakers. We want guys that can stretch the field. We want guys that can catch the ball inside on third downs. We want guys that can scare the defense and allow us to be flexible and balanced up front on offense. We don’t want to be a team that’s forced to do anything; we want to be a team that can dictate to the defense what we want to do.

“I think part of that is being a team that can run the football — a physical, big, physical mashing style [of] offense, which is what we’ve seen in the past from us. We are a running team. We want to be a big, physical offensive line. We want receivers who can make plays. We want tight ends who can make plays. We want to not give the defense a chance to get used to what we’re doing.”

DeCosta’s problem is a matter of resources. The Ravens could add a playmaker at wide receiver or address their depth at outside linebacker through the NFL draft, but the team doesn’t pick until No. 27 overall. A midseason trade for pending free-agent pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue left the team with only six selections total, though DeCosta is hopeful the Ravens will be awarded another one or two compensatory picks.

And if the Ravens want to spend, they cannot be profligate. DeCosta said that if the salary cap falls from $198.2 million to between $175 million and $180 million in 2021, the Ravens expect to have $15 million to $20 million in space. “Not a lot of money,” DeCosta said, but more than the 20 or so other teams around the league that didn’t expect to have the coronavirus pandemic’s financial fallout wreck their long-term spending plans.

Since DeCosta took over for Ozzie Newsome in January 2019, his preference has always been to invest in homegrown players, to sign up-and-comers to long-term contracts before they hit free agency. Sometimes it works — starting safety and defensive leader Chuck Clark will have a cap hit of under $5 million through 2023 — and sometimes it backfires — cornerback Tavon Young has played in just two games since signing a three-year, $25.8 million extension in 2019.

When the signings pan out, the strategy pays for itself. But it also leaves little money for free-agent expenditures. DeCosta’s one big signing last season was defensive end Calais Campbell, whose $25 million contract only runs through 2021. His front office was clearing space for big-money extensions for Stanley and Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

If the Ravens can agree with Jackson on another megadeal this spring or summer, it might only be the first of several extensions for third-year stars. Mark Andrews is “a Pro Bowl tight end, in my opinion,” DeCosta said, while Orlando Brown Jr. “had a great year” despite switching from right tackle to left tackle.

“We want to keep our good, young players,” DeCosta said. “That’s something that as I thought about myself and being a GM, I really wanted us to try and do. We have these players. We draft them. We like them. We know them. They really fit us, and we want our fans to be able to reap the enjoyment of these players over time if we can, again, based on the parameters of the salary cap. So we will continue to engage in talks with all of our good, young players and try and sign as many guys as we can.”

As DeCosta noted, the Ravens already have produced a historically great rushing attack, albeit one that’s faltered in the postseason. He also disputed the notion that their run-first approach — no other team passed less in 2020 than the Ravens — would be a deterrent in free agency: “I’ve never had a player yet say to me, ‘I don’t want to come play for the Baltimore Ravens because you don’t throw the ball.’ "

But if the team can’t afford a top receiver like the Chicago Bears’ Allen Robinson or Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin, an improved passing offense will have to come from within. The problem areas are fixable, DeCosta said. Presnap penalties were an issue. So were turnovers over the first half of the season. A warped offseason stunted the development of rookie receivers like Devin Duvernay and James Proche II. The aerial attack finished 17th overall in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings, a tumble from No. 1 in 2019.

“There are a lot of things that we can do to improve,” DeCosta said, even as he acknowledged that the Ravens don’t necessarily want to evolve into the offenses taking center stage in Super Bowl LV. In the AFC, Mahomes and the Chiefs have passed their way to the brink of a second straight NFL title. The Ravens want to get back there their own way.

“We want to be good at everything,” DeCosta said. “We don’t want to be a great offense and a great defense and be terrible on special teams. We don’t want to have a great special teams and be really good on offense and be a terrible defense. ...

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“We would like to improve in many different areas. We did not accomplish our ultimate goal this year. We have to find out why, and we have to be able to do that next year.”

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