When the Ravens found their quarterback of the future in 2018, they also found cheap help.
One day after general manager Ozzie Newsome traded into the first round to take quarterback Lamar Jackson No. 32 overall, he gave the future NFL Most Valuable Player a Pro Bowl tight end (Mark Andrews) and Pro Bowl offensive tackle (Orlando Brown Jr.). A day after that, Newsome grabbed a starting left guard (Bradley Bozeman) and starting safety (DeShon Elliott).
Even players the Ravens would later part with proved valuable. Eric DeCosta, Newsome’s successor, dealt fourth-round pick Kenny Young and a future fifth-rounder to the Los Angeles Rams for All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters. Top overall pick Hayden Hurst was traded away for the Atlanta Falcons’ second-round pick that became running back J.K. Dobbins. And now Brown, a third-round pick in 2018, has been sent to the Kansas City Chiefs for what amounts to a mid-second-round pick.
In the NFL, there is nothing more valuable than a good quarterback on a rookie contract. It is the market inefficiency that helps the Ravens win despite paying Earl Thomas III to go away. But as their front office prepares to pay Jackson less like Patrick Ricard and more like Patrick Mahomes, the burden of building a Super Bowl-level roster will fall to DeCosta on nights like Thursday, when the Ravens have two first-round picks, twice as many pressing needs and just one more year to capitalize on maybe the franchise’s best-ever bargain.
“To win a Super Bowl, you always have to draft well,” said Zack Moore, the author of “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions.” But with an outsize investment in one player, he said, “the margin of error changes, and it’s always really hard to be successful. So if we’re looking at it as, like, a math problem, the probability of success just decreases.”
Moore added: “We’re seeing draft picks become all the more valuable in that scenario.”
It won’t be long before Jackson’s bill comes due. He will count $3 million against the salary cap this season, the final year of his rookie contract. Coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday on “The Rich Eisen Show” that Jackson’s fifth-year team option will be exercised by Monday’s deadline, guaranteeing Jackson $23.1 million in 2022.
After that, who knows? The Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson, Jackson’s most common analogues at the position, recently signed four-year extensions worth $40 million and $39 million annually, respectively. Neither has an MVP award or Jackson’s attendance record. Neither got an extension this close to the league’s imminent salary cap boom.
Over time, as the cap rises and the market resets, a big-money quarterback deal can pay for itself. Considering the alternatives — starting over in the draft, trading for an unproven backup — Pro Bowl talents like Russell Wilson ($35 million annually) and Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million annually) are worthwhile investments. Teams with a good quarterback almost never spend a top draft pick in hopes of finding another.
But every dollar spent at the position is potentially one less dollar spent on a free-agent deal or a homegrown extension. Imagine the 2020 Ravens without the financial flexibility to apply the franchise tag to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, take on defensive end Yannick Ngakoue’s deal at midseason, sign defensive lineman Derek Wolfe or extend Peters’ contract. Their combined cap space last season: $39.9 million.
A contract extension for Jackson “will change the way that we do contracts, potentially,” DeCosta said last week. “We will have to be probably a little bit more careful about which players we sign and which players we don’t sign. We may lose some good, young players. That’s unfortunately just the salary cap age that we’re in, and it happens to every single team.”
When DeCosta was introduced as GM in January 2019, he made clear one team-building priority: Sign rising stars to long-term deals before anyone else could. Under Newsome, back-loaded deals had often left the Ravens short-handed in free agency. He wanted the front office to be aggressive, to extract value from deals secured before the open market could set the price.
At the Ravens’ predraft news conference, DeCosta seemed to confirm another prong of his team-building strategy, one with Jackson’s megadeal in mind: Stockpile draft picks. He said he sees an opportunity to draft “somewhere around 20 players” over the next two years. The Ravens have nine in this week’s draft and are expected to receive at least four additional selections in the first five rounds of the 2022 draft — three compensatory picks (one in the third and two in the fourth) and the Chiefs’ fifth-rounder.
“The idea is to always have some surplus picks in your back pocket that you can use,” said DeCosta, who called the draft a “luck-driven process.” “We like that number. It keeps us young but also experienced across the roster, and that should give us a chance to compete long term.”
Draft failures doomed the organization the last time a Ravens quarterback got superstar money. After Joe Flacco in 2013 signed the richest contract in NFL history, the Ravens didn’t skimp on picks; they averaged 9.2 selections over the next five drafts. But quantity did not yield quality, at least not enough. The Ravens often found late-round sleepers like fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end Nick Boyle and Judon, but their hit rate on Day 1 and Day 2 picks dipped. Flacco struggled, and they made the playoffs just once in that span.
The value of the Ravens’ 2018 class, while almost impossible to replicate, is instructive. For the six potential starters on rookie contracts whom the Ravens have acquired through the draft, undrafted free agency or a draft pick from that year — Jackson, Andrews, Bozeman, Elliott, Dobbins and running back Gus Edwards — the Ravens have a projected cap hit of $15.9 million total in 2021.
In the NFL, that’s what good business looks like: filling almost a quarter of a team’s 22 starting jobs (special teams excluded) with players who take up less than 9% of its allotted salary cap space. And after Brown’s trade, the picks the Ravens acquired could extend the value of the class through 2024.
“The Ravens under Ozzie and Eric, over the years, have kind of figured it out in terms of volume, right?” NFL Network draft analyst and former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah said. “Having a lot of picks every year ... you hit on your mid-round picks, and you don’t pay everybody, so you end up getting the comp picks. That’s going to be even more important for them, is to be deadly accurate in those middle-round picks, because it gives you the cheap starters to offset the money you’re now investing in the quarterback position.”
These Ravens enter this year’s draft with maybe more glaring roster holes than any iteration since Jackson was drafted. They need an instant-impact edge rusher. They need a potential starting right tackle. They need a long-term outside receiver. They need a third starting interior lineman. Their approach in Thursday’s first round, where they hold the Nos. 27 and 31 overall picks, will dictate their next two days and six rounds, as well as their remaining free-agency moves.
Mark Dominik, a SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager, praised the Ravens for how they’ve built their offense in recent years to maximize Jackson’s talents, from targeting youth and speed at skill positions to investing in their line in free agency. But he said he expects the team to prioritize its defense in the draft. He pointed to the aging line, in particular: “I do think they do see that the gap is starting to burn out, and I would think that DeCosta, being there for so long, sees that as well.”
However they proceed, DeCosta and Harbaugh can take comfort in knowing that the teams leading off Thursday’s draft want what the Ravens already have: a franchise quarterback. They’re not easy to find. That’s why the Ravens are preparing to pay Jackson. That’s why they’re looking for a lot more cheap help, too.
“We understand that if we do sign a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, that’s going to change the way we’ve operated the last couple of years,” DeCosta said. “We certainly understand that, and we look at that as a great problem to have. We aspire to that type of problem.”
Round 1: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Rounds 2-3: Friday, 7 p.m.
Rounds 4-7: Saturday, noon
Latest Baltimore Ravens
TV: ESPN, NFL Network, Chs. 2, 7