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Cracking the Code: Eric DeCosta’s strategy for modernizing the Ravens

Not even two years into his tenure, Baltimore’s GM has employed calculated aggression to bring the franchise into the 2020’s

NFL Combine - Day 2

“Right player, right price,” was the refrain we had heard for so many years. It’s the mantra (or one of the few) of former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome that came to define the man, and by extension the organization that he represented with such distinguished efficiency for his entire career as GM.

That saying, along with others such as “Best Player Available,” represent Ozzie’s 20-year run in charge of things, and do so perfectly for a few different reasons. The first is is the philosophy they’re rooted in: a disciple of Bill Belichick, Newsome was an economist at heart, and stuck to these simple yet profound principles in every situation from the free agent negotiation table, to the draft weekend war room. The second is rooted in the first, and it’s that Ozzie liked to build his roster in a way that was befitting of the times.

Strategically organic

NFL Class of 2013 Enshrinement Ceremony
Newsome wrote the playbook for how to bring the NFL all the way into the free agency era.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Belichick cohort that had the Browns on the verge of real success in the mid-90’s did so at the cutting edge of many different ideas that are somewhat commonplace these days. Chief among them was the exploitation of the compensatory pick formula, and how that changed the entire landscape of both the NFL Draft and it’s free agency period. With free agency being a relatively new phenomenon in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the idea of drafting guys to get cheap production from, and then allowing to leave for a similar draft pick in return was a somewhat revolutionary idea at the time, but the great organizations of this century have all employed it to the point that it feels like standard operating procedure in 2020.

That becoming the case happened in Baltimore, New England, and a select few other places because Art Modell fired Belichick, moved his franchise to Charm City, and handed the keys over to Ozzie from that point forward. And from then on, the Wizard (as he became known) began to work his magic. Choosing Jonathan Ogden over Lawrence Phillips with his first pick set the “best player available” tone he became known for, and allowing supporting players with high production to leave in exchange for precious comp picks became his calling card — be it Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, or any number of other guys who went on to set the market at their positions.

As great as the totality of Ozzie’s career undoubtedly was, there was some inconsistency in team success near the end of his run that stands out a bit. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Newsome and the Ravens hitched their wagon to Joe Flacco in 2013 with a massive contract, because the prevailing notion at the time in the NFL was that there’s nothing more valuable than having a franchise quarterback.

Flacco is the most fascinating test case in that theory because while he was undoubtedly was a franchise QB, his inability to make up for other weak spots on the roster hurt the Ravens in some ways after he won them a Super Bowl ring. While there are some influencing factors there (such as the franchise’s inability to provide him with effective weapons post 2012), Flacco and a few of his mid-level contemporaries proved to be the pin that burst the bubble on the aforementioned superstar quarterback theory.

With the albatross that was Flacco’s contract hanging over him, some of Newsome’s strategies were subsequently put to the test. While they weren’t necessarily delegitimized, it’s fair to question if either those strategies, or the way they were being employed, weren’t built for the era of the passing boom. Being patient and reserved while organically building your roster through the draft is much easier to do when the league’s salary cap situation isn’t centered around every starting QB within the Top-20 of the perceived league hierarchy receiving mega contracts. These contracts both tighten up the cap and, as a result, hinder draft strategies due to certain team needs being more amplified than others.

So with those restrictions and more media pressure than ever before, how does a general manager navigate the modern landscape, especially after having already perfected how to operate in the era prior? Ozzie’s successor Eric DeCosta seems to be among a few who have figured it out, and it’s through a game plan that is best described by another two words . . .

Calculated aggression

NFL: FEB 27 Scouting Combine
After a stellar first year and a half in charge, DeCosta appears poised to take the Ravens into a new era of the NFL.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As much as this article will happily extoll the virtues of Ozzie and all that he did for the Ravens franchise, the experience of being a fan of the teams that he built could sometimes get . . . boring. Or worse, disappointing. That’s at least when it came to the offseason, as Baltimore would sit idly by through the first few waves of free agency and then bone up on the meat and potatoes positions through the draft. We always knew they had a plan and that it would likely pay off as soon as that season, but man was it heartbreaking to miss out on exciting players and position groups year in and year out.

As the 2019 offseason got going, it became clear that DeCosta’s tenure would not be defined by the inactivity that would frustrate us in past offseasons. Key players such as C.J. Mosley walked, supporting players like Nick Boyle and Tavon Young were brought back on affordable well before market deals, and a seemingly quiet opening to the free agency period was quickly enlivened with the signings of Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram. All of these moves ran the gamut of praise and controversy which we now have even more context on thanks to the benefit of hindsight, but it was in the 2019 NFL Draft that DeCosta fully cemented himself as a GM with a modern sensibility.

Filling in the blanks

NFL: APR 25 2019 NFL Draft
DeCosta made a statement with his first ever draft pick.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is embodied in his first pick, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown out of Oklahoma, a smaller receiver with all the big-play potential of a stick of dynamite. He perfectly encapsulates what a modern NFL receiver looks like in 2020 as the league has shifted towards the more diminutive wideouts over the past several years, something ESPN’s Matt Bowen wrote about in 2016:

“Fast, quick and electric after the catch, a new brand of wide receiver is striking fear into the NFL,” he wrote. “With smaller frames and the change-of-direction ability to win in the open field, these cats mesh perfectly in today’s offenses. They have the formation flexibility and versatility at the position to win on all three levels of the route tree. They are wild-cards in the offensive game plan and pro defenses are struggling to match up. In 2011, just nine receivers less than 6-foot tall were in the top 50 in receiving yards. However, in 2015, 16 players made the cut. With NFL defenses trending toward longer, taller cornerbacks to counter the Calvin Johnson-type wide receivers, these shorter wideouts are exposing coverages in wide-open offenses.”

Brown, 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, and 2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay now wearing purple and black signal one of the few sea changes that DeCosta has brought about in his short time in charge. From 1996 to 2018, Newsome selected a wide receiver in the first three rounds of the draft seven times in total. That number was egregiously low even in the mid 2000’s, and by the mid 2010’s it was beginning to look like a glaring miscalculation about the value of the position.

DeCosta has already picked a wide receiver within the Top-96 three times in just two drafts, and traded up into the sixth round to grab James Proche this last draft. Whether Ozzie wanted to accept it or not, the value of the receiver position grew over the course of his time in charge. Now that DeCosta has the keys to the operation, he’s made it a point to show that he understands this.

Not for nothing, either, as many well-studied NFL scholars see this as the case as well. In fact, the Pro Football Network has a stat that gauges production by individual responsibility called the Offensive Share Metric (or, OSM) which supports the idea that receivers have become linchpins of modern offenses. The below graph via th e OSM goes as far to say that receivers have been more valuable than quarterbacks since the metric’s inception in 2016:

In an embrace of (but admittedly not a dogmatic approach to) modern positional value, DeCosta has the Ravens in position to be humming at some of the cutting edges they were severely lagging behind at even just a few seasons ago. That may or may not occur with this current crop of wideouts, as Boykin in particular has a IQ rating of about zero right now, but remember that it’s not about the individual players - it’s about the process. Just the fact that DeCosta is even taking this many swings shows that he understands the importance of keeping the position stocked, which should give fans all the incentive they need to trust his process as far as the wide receiver spot goes.

Embracing the most modern position on offense without sacrificing prioritization of other important ones has thankfully become a staple of the EDC experience, as has another approach that he’s become known for. We just saw that take place with the Ngakoue acquisition, and have seen it happen a handful of times in under two years.

Unconventional acquisitions

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns
In his 2019 deadline trade for Marcus Peters, DeCosta again set himself apart from Newsome in terms of key strategy.
Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Conventional NFL wisdom since pretty much the dawn of the free agency era is that the trade market is the lowest common denominator for player acquisitions. That mindset stems from many mitigating factors, that to be fair, did make the idea of acquiring a player via trade to be pretty damn complicated. Unfortunately, that group think led to league wide stagnancy at the mid-season trade deadline, always making it an incredibly disappointing date on an otherwise exciting NFL calendar.

Interestingly enough, DeCosta doesn’t seem worried about these complications, or allowing those potential roadblocks to stop him. A Sporting News article by OTC’s Jason Fitzgerald from October of 2019 (right around the time the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters) explains why so few NFL trades do happen, particularly at the deadline. One of the reasons is a psychological hurdle that revolves around a familiar concept:

“The signing bonus also presents a major psychological barrier to trading,” he wrote. “The “sunk cost trap” is something we all fall into in our daily lives. If you feel you already paid a large amount of money for something that no longer does the job you expected, you still try to fix it and make it work because you paid so much. Imagine paying somebody $20 million in a given year for a five-year contract and by the next year sending the balance of that contract to another team. In essence, you are handing that team $16 million of your money in return for a third-round pick. A general manager looks bad in that scenario.”

Fitzgerald refers to the “sunk cost trap,” also known as the “sunk cost fallacy,” which is probably the more appropriate name. That’s especially the case when it comes to NFL transactions, because by the sound of what he’s talking about, more NFL trades don’t happen because executives are worried about the optics. In the case of the Peters trade, the Rams had gotten him for a fourth and a second-round pick from Kansas City ahead of the 2018 season, and he had a productive year and a half in L.A. Optically, this would have been enough for Rams general manager Les Snead to sign him to a long-term deal.

NFL Combine - Day 2
Snead is a forward thinker in his own right, and saw an opportunity to acquire Jalen Ramsey via an unconventional method of his own.

Instead, Snead didn’t worry about the narrative of the situation, and shipped Peters off in a gambit that landed Los Angeles Jalen Ramsey, who they did ink to a massively backloaded $100,000,000 deal that they’ll be on the hook of for several years. On the flip side, DeCosta wasn’t worried about the optics of offloading Kenny Young, a player he had put a lot of faith in to man the inside linebacker position heading into that season. Thanks to the Rams desperation to acquire Ramsey, DeCosta was able to trade for a quality playmaking cornerback in Peters for a fifth-round pick and a player that he wasn’t using in Young, and extended the former on a relatively affordable deal for the next few years shortly after the trade.

In that sense, it almost makes you wonder if more NFL trades don’t happen simply because general managers have led us to believe they’re not practical, when in reality they’re really just trying to protect themselves from risk. The fact is that there’s a multitude of avenues at NFL teams’ disposals to improve their lot, and one of the main ones isn’t exploited as often because it’s a little bit more difficult to make happen. Or that was the case, as evidence of the proactive approach from DeCosta and a few of his other contemporaries hint that things may finally be changing for the better on that front.

This also of course goes without saying that the decision maker needs to be smart enough to identify situations in which they may be able to exploit an inefficiency via trade, and savvy enough to ultimately make it happen. Those two things may be what separates somebody like DeCosta with a more reactive GM, many of whom are still employed these days, though there’s no need to name names.

For example, DeCosta was smart enough to realize that the Jaguars were entering a serious rebuild and that a player like Calais Campbell probably didn’t want to finish his career amidst one of those situations. Consequently, he showed the initiative and the savvy to pick up the phone and convince Jacksonville to give him up for just a fifth-round pick, which is of course much easier said than done.

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings
The Ngakoue trade represents everything to love about DeCosta’s approach to an underutilized market; persistent, aggressive, and not crippling for either party.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s also easier said than done when talking about a player who you tried and failed to acquire multiple times, only to see him get shipped off to another team. That would of course be Yannick Ngakoue who, after being sent to the Ravens for a third and a conditional fifth-round pick on Thursday, was confirmed to have been a long time target of Baltimore:

It had to have been disappointing for DeCosta to see Ngakoue get sent to Minnesota, but evidence that he truly is bucking the trend of NFL complacency on the trade market hasn’t been clearer than it is right now. Even just five years ago, a GM aggressively pursuing a player only to see him wind up elsewhere, and then stay in on the player’s status and jump at the chance to get him for less just a few months later, would seem like something you’d only see in Madden’s franchise mode. Again, DeCosta saw an opportunity to exploit an inefficiency (Minnesota not needing Ngakoue anymore), and was aggressive enough to follow up on it. The result is yet another trade that appears to be a home run for Baltimore.

While the move to embrace the receiver position is one that badly needed to happen in Baltimore, it was pretty much a no-brainer by the time DeCosta came into power. It’s the second aspect of this piece which highlights how he may be writing his own legacy in the shadow of Ozzie’s already outsized one.

In the early 2000’s, Newsome made his mark via the draft and the collection of compensatory picks; in a faster, sleeker, and more connected NFL, EDC appears to be doing so via the trade market, which if done correctly could have an impact on the rest of the league’s GMs and how they operate (just as the comp pick formula did back in the day).

Cracking the code

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

It’s much too early to offer up some grandiose referendum on the DeCosta regime, even though it may seem like that’s what this piece is doing. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of room for the Ravens relatively new general manager to grow, and he has also had his fair share of misfires to date. However, the early returns on his approach are incredibly promising, and they indicate that this franchise is heading full bore into the 2020’s with the correct mindset.

Through an embrace of modern positional value (properly hedged against old school ideas in that arena) and an aggression to tap into the seldom used NFL trade market, EDC is proving himself to be at the bleeding edge of what the league looks for in a top executive just as his predecessor was 20 years ago. The results on the field may not be the all the way there yet, as the Ravens first need to make some noise in the playoffs before anyone raises a proverbial “mission accomplished” banner, but Ravens fans should trust that they have the correct brain trust in position to eventually get them there.

In that sense, DeCosta and the team of scouts and coaches around him are really just getting started.