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Will the Ravens pivot during this pivotal offseason?

Roster construction and championship strategy

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens are entering a pivotal offseason in 2021.

The franchise has enjoyed tremendous success during John Harbaugh’s tenure. His 62% percent regular season winning percentage is sixth best among active head coaches and he has led Baltimore to four division titles in 13 season. However, the ‘contend every season’ model of sustainability has produced just two postseason victories over the last eight seasons, compared to nine playoff wins and three conference championship appearances during Harbaugh’s first five years at the helm.

Baltimore’s front office is rightfully considered one of the very best and ranks among most respected in the league. Their player acquisition philosophies consistently generate above average return on investment in free agency and the draft.

The franchise is in the midst of an outstanding run of draft results. Ozzie Newsome’s final three seasons as general manager produced first round All-Pros Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey and Lamar Jackson at the three most important positions on the field. Newsome also landed several premium position Pro Bowlers in later rounds, namely Matthew Judon in the fifth, as well as Orlando Brown Jr. and Mark Andrews in the third round.

Despite this extraordinary drafting, the Ravens have not fully capitalized on the advantages these cost-controlled premium position Pro Bowlers have provided. Since Jackson replaced Joe Flacco at quarterback, Baltimore has failed to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs, earning a disappointing 1-3 postseason record that includes home losses when favored against the Chargers and Titans.

While it remains to be seen if an extremely unbalanced, run-heavy offensive attack can deliver a deep postseason run, salary cap constraints are guaranteed to deplete talent from the roster as young recent draft picks receive lucrative second contracts. Attrition is likely to begin this offseason unless the organization is prepared to deviate from their sustainability model in order to combat their AFC competition, the intimidating Chiefs, ascending Bills, Browns and rugged Titans.

In the modern NFL, coaching schemes and team culture intangibles are complementary parts of a championship formula built primarily upon foundational personnel. Former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah developed a roster building checklist:

2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson absolutely fills the need at quarterback as a ‘tractor’ that elevates the play of his surrounding teammates. Upgrading the blocking in front of Jackson would certainly be beneficial, but the Ravens will field three quality offensive lineman in Stanley, Bradley Bozeman and Brown Jr., barring the departure of their valuable right tackle.

As for playmakers on offense, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews have proven to be bonafide playmakers. J.K. Dobbins can establish himself as the third if he can grow into a consistent passing game contributor in his second season. Regardless, adding a legitimate third offensive playmaker as insurance against injury would be quite prudent.

The value of edge rushers has diminished recently due to the spread of quick release passing attacks. Still, Eric DeCosta probably needs to find some presence off the edge to complement the interior push applied by Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike. Impending unrestricted free agents Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, a veteran from another team or a first round outside linebacker could check that box.

Defensive playmakers are slightly more difficult to categorize. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters supply the Ravens with two upper echelon corners. The third playmaker could potentially be found in-house. Maybe Patrick Queen can make a significant offseason leap in pass coverage, Tavon Young can turn in a healthy season or DeShon Elliott can generate more takeaways. Recent trends suggest that offensive prowess is more predictive of team success than defensive investment.

All-in-all, Baltimore is currently better positioned than most teams in terms of cornerstone players. No team is perfectly complete with a full assortment of difference makers at every valuable position. Nonetheless, depending on the development of Queen and Dobbins, the same issues that restricted the team in 2020 could arise again, while outside linebacker is downgraded. Continuing to bolster the foundation of premium position playmakers this offseason is critical.

Fortunately, DeCosta has an opportunity to deploy his capital strategically and construct a championship caliber roster in 2021. Contract extensions for Stanley and Humphrey, pay raises for proven young performers and a probable pandemic-induced decrease in the league-wide salary cap have combined to strip Baltimore of cap space. Still, they retain enough room to ink a single top tier offensive playmaker or pass rusher in free agency if they conserve their resources for a cornerstone player at the expense of depth. Creative contract structuring and cap manipulation could potentially allow the front office to afford both key elements.

The draft is another avenue where DeCosta can add foundational blocks. The 2021 crop boasts great depth along the offensive line, capable pass catchers and a few intriguing defensive backs. Presumably, DeCosta could follow other well regarded front offices by trading away draft capital in exchange for a proven prime-age cornerstone player or coveted, elite prospect. A singular matchup-creator is often more impactful than several developmental prospects combined.

The salary clock is ticking on the Ravens excellent 2018 draft class that has propelled them past the mediocrity of the latter Flacco years. Before long, a cap crunch may close this current championship window. Fielding a couple more difference makers than they had in 2020 could enable Baltimore to overcome their fierce AFC foes.

While serving as the second general manager in team history, DeCosta has modernized and improved some of the core principals Newsome instilled. Perhaps pivoting away from the stability model is necessary to compete at the highest level in this rapidly evolving NFL landscape. Several proven contenders have recently decided to stretch the limits of their payroll ledgers with unbalanced salary allocations, trading future promise for immediate impact. They have dared to fully commit all available resources to the pursuit of a championship by cultivating a depth chart stocked with the essential personnel components.

DeCosta’s level of aggression this offseason will reveal his evaluation of the roster’s foundation. The results of the 2021 postseason will determine if DeCosta was correct. And in the coming years, Steve Bisciotti’s trophy case will display the effectiveness of the Ravens strategy.