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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ virtual predraft news conference

Ravens GM Eric DeCosta was asked Monday about free-agent Antonio Brown, “as far as free-agent players, we wouldn’t talk about those guys right now.

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta is confident that his staff will fall back on old-school scouting chops in a draft altered by the coronavirus epidemic. That’s among five things we learned from the team’s virtual predraft news conference.

The Ravens think that scouting acumen will mitigate knowledge gaps caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Last year at this time, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta showed off his team’s cutting-edge draft room, gleefully posting the names of local media members on a mock big board.

On Monday, DeCosta fielded questions about the 2020 draft from his home office, words breaking up because of a spotty Zoom connection.

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If we needed another reminder of how strange everyday life has become, here it was. But DeCosta, who joined coach John Harbaugh and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz for the video news conference, refused to concede much of anything to the pandemic.

Though Ravens scouts and coaches will have to conduct their predraft meetings over Zoom and though the team will be unable to host favored prospects at its facility in Owings Mills, DeCosta said the process “hasn’t been that bad, honestly.”

He noted that the Ravens drafted just fine during their early years in Baltimore, a largely pre-digital age when less information was available on each player. If anything, he said, the process has reminded the Ravens of a fundamental tenet: “It’s really about the tape.” They’ve made some of their most astute draft scores when blocking out the chatter about a player and focusing on how he performed in college.

“There’s probably going to be, in this process, some questions that we just can’t answer,” DeCosta said. “Some of those questions might be about a player’s personality, might be about an injury that the player sustained, could be a lack of a workout. We’ve got to figure out how do we value those unknowns? … That’s not easy for some of us that like to have as much information as possible.”

But if anything, he sounded invigorated by having to fall back on his staff’s scouting fundamentals. DeCosta made his NFL bones as a scout, so he knows most of the essential work was done before social-distancing regulations clamped down on the Ravens and every other team. “It’s gonna be old school,” he said. “We know it can be done.”

The Ravens have the ammunition to move up in the first round, but that doesn’t mean they will.

With seven picks over the first four rounds, DeCosta acknowledged “we have the opportunity maybe to go up and get a guy.”

But he quickly added that when a coveted prospect starts to fall, the Ravens are usually outbid by another team more eager to move up. “Sometimes, the best trades are the ones we don’t make,” he said.

DeCosta will rarely tip his hand regarding expectations for an upcoming draft. But his words offered a useful reminder of the mentality he learned under previous general manager Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens trust their ability to find good players throughout the draft, so they’re reluctant to give up volume in the hunt for a specific prospect. That’s why we’ve seen them trade down more than up over the years.

Do they have the assets to move up for a sexy prospect such as Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy? Sure. Are they likely to do so when there are at least a dozen receiver prospects who could help them right away? History tells us no.

That’s not to say that the Ravens will stand pat throughout the draft. They almost certainly will not. DeCosta is an aggressive general manager who loves to trade. Expect him to make opportunistic moves up and down the board. Just don’t set your hearts on a big first-day leap when he has urgent work to do at three or four positions.

Replacing Marshal Yanda might be the Ravens’ most difficult assignment.

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Harbaugh did not blow sunshine when asked about filling the shoes of an eight-time Pro Bowl guard. “The thinking is it’s going to be really hard,” he said. “He’s irreplaceable, bottom line.”

With their prolific rushing attack, the Ravens need powerful interior blockers more than ever, and one of the two best offensive linemen in franchise history just retired near the peak of his powers. The Ravens have a potential in-house solution in 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, but that’s no given. They’re also facing uncertainty at center, where Matt Skura is working to come back from a catastrophic knee injury. To feel confident in their interior shuffle, they’ll need more good players.

“Taking Marshal out of that equation is not just a one-guy deal,” Harbaugh said. “He exponentially makes the offensive line better. … That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s job one or two; we have to do a great job making sure the interior offensive line is set.”

Do the answers lie in a draft class that features high-end tackle prospects but middling depth at the interior spots? When asked about the deepest positions in the class, DeCosta did not list offensive line. But he did express confidence that the Ravens will find a ready-to-play blocker on the first two days.

“That’s the plan,” he said. “There are some tackles that we think could play inside at guard. There are some really good guards, some centers. I think we’ve shown in the past we can find guys in the second third, fourth, fifth round — offensive linemen who can come in and play.”

Yanda was one of those, a third-round pick in 2007 who evolved from a college tackle to one of the best guards of his generation. It’s too much to ask for a second lightning strike at the same position, but you can bet the Ravens will try.

We can’t know where the Ravens will lean in the first round.

Good luck trying to sift any intelligence on an individual player from DeCosta and Hortiz’s comments. Ravens officials have long joked that their annual predraft news conference is a festival of deceit and misdirection. And they were, if anything, less revealing than usual this time around.

We know the Ravens (like everyone else) see great depth at wide receiver, where DeCosta said there are 25 draftable players. We know they could use a three-down inside linebacker or a starting guard. But DeCosta and Hortiz also lavished praise on the cornerbacks, safeties and running backs who might be available in the first and second rounds. So as much as you might like to pair the Ravens with your favorite receiver or one of those linebackers we keep hearing about, reality is cloudier.

DeCosta could probably narrow his pool of likely first-round choices to a half-dozen, but even he does not know what hand he’ll be dealt at the 28th overall pick. The Ravens do not control their destiny, and nothing you hear or read over the next 16 days will change that.

The Ravens’ season could be delayed or even wiped out, but those are problems for a later date.

DeCosta and Harbaugh know that nothing is certain in this unsettled time for the world. Though no schedule changes have been announced, they’re preparing for a late start to the Ravens’ offseason program. Team meetings and conditioning sessions could be conducted via Zoom. Beyond that, no one can guarantee games will be played this fall, an agonizing prospect for a team with realistic Super Bowl aspirations.

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But there’s a guiding ethic in professional sports that you control what you can and don’t waste energy fretting about what you can’t.

“Everybody thinks about it. I wouldn’t say you don’t think about it,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s not something that I’m concerned with in the sense that we’re getting ready for a season and I’m assuming we’re going to play. I’m assuming we’re going to be back at the soonest possible date and therefore be ready for it, to get the most out of it.”

If every team has less time to prepare, how can the Ravens squeeze the most out of said time? Harbaugh has always looked for possible competitive advantages when presented with rule changes or scheduling quirks. He suggested this situation will be no different.

DeCosta’s primary job is the same as it always is this time of year: fortify his roster in the draft. There’s a comfort in that.

“I know the draft is probably the most important thing right now for the organization, so I’ll focus on that,” he said. “We’ll worry about what happens next when that next thing is on the plate.”

For all the talk of what won’t change, Harbaugh acknowledged some things have. He’s taking neighborhood walks with his wife, Igrid, at times when he’d normally be buried in his office.

“The message to me is you don’t have to drive into the office every day to get the job done,” he said. “Before, it would have been business as usual, and now it’s not. And I think hopefully, for me personally, I’ll look at things a little differently when we come out of this whole thing, with lifestyle and priorities and how time is spent. I would like to think we would all do that.”

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