Eric DeCosta talks about his new role as Ravens General Manager and the support he has received from owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
From the Ravens' aggressive plans to clear salary cap space to their hopes of re-signing C.J. Mosley, here are five things we learned from general manager Eric DeCosta's introductory news conference.
DeCosta will move aggressively to create salary-cap room but not in the name of chasing big-ticket free agents.
Joe Flacco’s franchise-player contract made roster budgeting difficult in recent seasons, and DeCosta said he’s looking forward to the next four years, when quarterback Lamar Jackson will be playing on his relatively modest rookie deal.
“I think it’s great,” the Ravens’ new general manager said Wednesday. “As I said, one of the things that we want to do is put ourselves in a really good salary-cap situation now and also moving forward. That’s a goal, that’s a challenge and I think we can get there. I think we’ll make strides this year, I think we’ll make more strides moving forward — that’s our plan.”
Coach John Harbaugh said last week that he’d like to keep veterans such as safety Eric Weddle and guard Marshal Yanda, who are under contract for a combined cap hit of $18.4 million in 2019.
DeCosta was less committal. “We’ll make some tough decisions with certain players,” he said. “Again, I think we want to have the best players we can that we can fit in under the salary cap. We want to have a mix of young players and veteran leadership and guys that can help us win games, and there’s a lot of different formulas for that. As of right now, we’re not tied to cutting anybody and we’re not tied to playing with anybody.”
Don’t expect the Ravens to go hog wild on the open market. DeCosta preaches fiscal responsibility as fervently as his predecessor and mentor, Ozzie Newsome. “Right player, right price,” he said, echoing Newsome’s philosophy.
He suggested the team will be more aggressive in locking up the team’s young stars — defensive tackle Michael Pierce, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and linebackers Matthew Judon and Patrick Onwuasor come to mind — before they reach free agency.
“That would be a goal, for sure,” DeCosta said. “I think that we would love to keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore. That's hard to do at times when you have a really, really good quarterback who's making a lot of money. You have less cap room. It is tough for you to keep your roster intact. It is a lot easier to do when you don't have those parameters.”
Setting aside his more neutral comments on other players, DeCosta made it clear he hopes to bring back Mosley, the 26-year-old middle linebacker who’s made four Pro Bowls in five years since the Ravens drafted him in the first round.
“I certainly hope that C.J. is back,” he said. “I believe in my heart that he will be. We’re having those discussions now. We’ve got several different strategies in place. We’re in the business of keeping our good football players. Talent wins in the NFL, and he’s a Pro Bowl linebacker, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure C.J. is back on the team.”
His comments echoed Harbaugh’s statements from last week. As the homegrown centerpiece of a league-leading defense, Mosley is exactly the kind of player the Ravens have traditionally committed to long-term.
DeCosta did not rule out using the franchise tag on Mosley, though that would be an expensive solution because middle linebackers are lumped in with outside pass rushers in determining the price ($14.9 million last season).
Typical NFL logic says you don’t pay big money for an inside linebacker, but DeCosta made the dissenting case as he discussed Mosley.
“I think Ray Lewis got paid and deservedly,” he said. “Good football players should be paid, and C.J.’s a good football player. There’s no doubt about it. You can get caught up in these types of positions that guys should get paid — you should pay the left tackle, you should pay the corner but not pay the defensive tackle or not pay the inside linebacker, and that’s all well and good unless somebody rushes for 250 yards against you.”
The Ravens’ draft and scouting apparatus will remain intact, but analytics will become more important.
The draft has long been DeCosta’s baby, and he praised the team’s current scouting staff, despite the recent losses of many highly regarded evaluators.
“I think this past season, the record, some of our younger players, that bears out,” he said. “I think we've got the best group in the league, quite frankly.”
Even as the Ravens stick to their traditions on the scouting side, DeCosta said they’ll move boldly to embrace the vanguard of football analysis. It’s a message that will resonate powerfully with data-minded fans.
“Incorporating science with traditional scouting methods, which I think is critical,” DeCosta said. “I think we’re a little bit ahead of the curve. We’ve been able to develop our own software, in house, which has been a great thing for us. We’ve got a great developer. That was a huge step for us. And we’ve got really good analysts as well who help us quite a bit.”
As he listed ways in which he differs from Newsome, he mentioned his more eager embrace of analytics.
“I think in terms of other sports, we’re definitely behind, in general,” he said. “Baseball, the NBA, Premier League soccer, those guys are doing some really cutting-edge stuff. We talk to those teams. We try to network and spend time with those guys every offseason where we can get ideas and bounce things off of those guys.”
DeCosta needs assistants to help him interpret the data, but his enthusiasm about the coming innovations was palpable.
“I think that 10 years from now, it’ll be unbelievable how this information is being used on game days, to evaluate talent, to plan play calls and things like that and to build your team,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
DeCosta’s comfort with his new job flows from his deep roots in the organization.
DeCosta recalled how, as a Ravens intern 23 years ago, he’d take coach Ted Marchibroda’s car to be serviced. Marchibroda usually gave him $100 and told him to keep the change. So DeCosta found a place that charged $9.99 and enjoyed his periodic $90 bonuses.
It was a cute story, but it also conveyed the breadth of DeCosta’s experiences with a franchise that’s always been his professional home. Yes, he’s deeply familiar with Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti, but he also knows the names of cafeteria workers and has carried out lighthearted pranks on a long list of colleagues.
He never could have replicated that familiarity in a different NFL city.
“To be honest with you, I cherish that, the fact that I could start out as a young person and really do a lot of different things,” he said. “I’ m proud of that, that I understand what a lot of people do in this organization, that I have an appreciation for what they do. In some instances, I did those jobs.”
DeCosta waited a long time to take the reins from Newsome, 12 years from the first time Bisciotti broached the topic of an eventual succession. He had chances to interview for other general manager jobs.
“Did I ever really consider it?” he said. “Not really. Every time I’d go to bed thinking that maybe I would consider something, I’d wake up and say, ‘What are you crazy? You know you’re going to have the job someday that you’ve dreamed about so just wait and make it perfect.’ ”
DeCosta’s personal affinity for the organization is no guarantee that he’ll thrive in the top job. But it was obvious Wednesday how much those ties mean to him. He’s set up to succeed.
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Even if Ozzie Newsome’s role remains undefined, DeCosta feels no anxiety about their dynamic.
To some observers, it might seem strange that Newsome will remain integral to the team’s front office instead of clearing out entirely for his protégé.
But DeCosta compared their relationship going forward to that between Vito Corleone and his son, Michael, in “The Godfather.” The younger man will make the final decisions, but whom better to consult than one of the most respected general managers in NFL history? Consigliere Newsome.
“Are there things that I want to do differently? Probably,” DeCosta said. “Look, we’re very different in a lot of different ways. We don’t see players the same way all the time. And if we don’t, we’ll typically scrimmage it, we’ll talk about it. That’s what makes it good. … You have to make the best decisions for the organization. You do that by talking about things, not running from them, not closing your door. You confront the issue, you confront the evaluation of a player, and the decision, and you come to grips with the best decision for the organization.”
DeCosta said he’ll also benefit from Newsome’s connections to the NFL league office and to old-school player agents.
Both men had more than a decade to contemplate the succession that has now occurred. The lack of palace intrigue is no surprise, given Newsome’s personal grace and DeCosta’s gratitude to the man who took an interest in him when he was a 25-year-old nobody.