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Opinion: It’s in the Ravens’ hands (and nobody else’s) to reverse the wide receiver narrative

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

NFL Combine - Day 2

Any Baltimore sports fan that’s worth their salt should quickly recognize the phrase “I like our guys.” It became a common refrain for Orioles manager Buck Showalter when asked about potential trades or signings that the club may have considered making in his heyday in the mid 2010’s (usually pertaining to the pitching staff).

It became such a calling card during the peak of the Buck era that his crosstown contemporary John Harbaugh utilized it at one point as well, as a probable nod to his friend Buck, and an easy out to a question surrounding his running back room. Simple, powerful, and pretty much all encompassing, “I like our guys” is coach speak personified.

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens
Buck Showalter is a beloved figure in Baltimore both for his success as a manager, and his embodiment of the town culture.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

But for O’s fans, it went deeper than the simple press conference filler it might have appeared to be for some. For a fanbase that had been toiling in the doldrums of irrelevance for the better part of the past two decades, the blue collar us-against-the-world nature of the phrase helped turn it into a rallying cry for the town.

T-Shirts were printed, Buck got in on the joke and continued to use it when appropriate, and the Q rating of the man who ostensibly brought baseball back to Baltimore continued to grow. As someone who spent much of my formative years tuned into MASN to listen to Buck discuss the teams he was coaching that meant so much to me, I find myself thinking back on “I like our guys” quite often.

The certain noble simplicity of it made me feel like even I was one of the guys who Buck liked, that he wasn’t just talking about a problem position in the outfield, but the entire fanbase as a whole. It was catchy enough to capture imaginations, and firm enough without being abrasive about the original question.

With all that said, you may have already picked up on just why I was thinking about it this past Monday afternoon. At the annual pre-draft press conference (or, “Liars Luncheon” as it’s become colloquially known among Baltimore media) the Ravens brass took the podium and allowed the media to fire away with their questions.

This tradition has very much earned its inauspicious nickname through years of smokescreens, poker faces, and any other imagery the moniker may conjure up, which is why I don’t typically allow any of what’s said to move the needle for me too much one way or the other. But today, a certain comment did prompt a bit of a less even keeled response from me.

It came as an answer to a question by ESPN’s Jamison Hensley who addressed fan angst around the wide receiver position, and why the Ravens haven’t been able to find Pro Bowlers there. Rather than a tweet or two that sums up what he said, I decided to go ahead and tweet out his full response which I’ll include in here to provide full and fair context:

There’s a ton to unpack here from what has become a decidedly emotional topic for Ravens fans, and now Ravens’ executives alike. In that 87 second clip, DeCosta is maybe as animated as I’ve seen him in his time as general manager, and with good reason.

Year after year, he and his predecessor have had to answer questions surrounding the wide receiver position, and as we fly full steam ahead towards the ‘21 NFL Draft, it feels that what was once a respectful dialogue has turned into a toxic fever-pitch. In that respect, it’s clear that EDC is simply blowing off a bit of steam here, which as a general manager (and frankly, a human being) he’s well within his right to do.

But what he and his staff would also be wise to remember when opening a vein like that is that Baltimore’s media and fanbase didn’t put them into this position. For one reason or another, the Ravens have time and again struggled to properly address the wide receiver spot, and in an NFL that’s getting increasingly pass happy, it’s only becoming a more glaring fault in what’s an otherwise rock solid plan to stay competitive year in and year out.

NFL: FEB 27 Scouting Combine
Typically calm, cool, and collected, even EDC showed some frustration in regards to the wide receiver issue the Ravens are (again) facing.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

His initial point in regards to winning games is well taken, a more than fair point towards the scoreboard that has the Ravens as 31-10 in games that Lamar Jackson has started in his career. After that is where he starts to lose me a little bit, though.

That the Ravens young receivers would feel insulted about fans dissatisfaction with the position is entirely natural. They’re young, supremely talented guys who up until this point in their lives have been the best of the best on whichever team they’re on at any level; now though, they’re in the big leagues, and unless they prove otherwise via production and production alone, they’ll be liable to some criticism from a fanbase that’s tired of having the same conversation seemingly every single year.

As much as DeCosta’s short but successful resume speaks for itself, the same applies to him too. If he feels insulted about the fact that fans aren’t satisfied by the team’s wide receivers, it’s 100% in his power to go and fix the issue, whether through the draft or otherwise.

What’s especially key about that latter point is that while EDC can rally around the troops all he wants, he made a play for a big name at the position in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a splashy move that would’ve all but sealed the fate of somebody at the end of the totem pole in Baltimore’s receiver room. There’s no telling who it might’ve been and whether Sammy Watkins will have the same effect regardless, but that and his drafting record over the last two years indicates that whether he’ll say it or not, the Ravens have an issue at wideout.

Ultimately, it may in fact be that drafting record that has DeCosta as worked up as he appeared to be about the position. Unlike his predecessor in Ozzie Newsome who barely touched wideout in the draft, EDC has picked four in two years, with three of those guys coming in the first three rounds.

That’s a figure that frankly would’ve been unheard of for a guy like Ozzie who preferred to find unheralded veterans at an affordable rate if and when they became available. DeCosta’s record in this regard seems to show he understands (at least to a degree) that in today’s game you need multiple viable options at wide receiver; the only thing he’s lacking for up to this point is having success finding those options.

Hollywood Brown was a good pick despite some of his struggles, and there’s still plenty to like about Devin Duvernay who seems to just need some more touches to showcase what he can do. Miles Boykin has been a disappointment but is at the very least a solid rotational option, and James Proche may have been worth the late round flier they took on him in 2020.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals
DeCosta has swung early and often in the draft compared to Ozzie Newsome, but the results aren’t all the way there yet.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

All of this is to say that if EDC is actually “insulted” about the dialogue surrounding his receiver room, he’s well within his power to do something about it. As (the morally questionable) Don Draper often states “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

DeCosta can do so by showing the same commitment to it in the draft that he has up to this point, and the same determination he showed in free agency to bring in a bona-fide starting option. Hollywood Brown and Sammy Watkins are the current starting options he has to show for that commitment and determination, which may be a bit frustrating even if he’d never admit it.

The Ravens may in fact like their guys when it comes to the wide receiver position, but to me, it seems that Eric DeCosta is as frustrated about the fact that despite his attempts to fix the issue, the conversation surrounding it is yet to cease. We all know that feeling, when we’re putting the requisite amount of work and effort into something and not yet seeing the results.

But just like I do to myself or anyone feeling that way in that situation, I’d defer to any of the multitude of old cliches which state how important it is to keep chipping away. Baltimore could be one or two draft picks away from the wideout narrative being a thing of the past for a good long while, and as annoying as it probably is to continue to hear about how he “can’t draft them,” EDC and the organization can’t afford to get discouraged from continuing to do so.

Michigan v Minnesota
There will be a multitude of options for DeCosta to choose from in the draft to hopefully help put an end to the wide receiver narrative.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Their activity in free agency is a tacit acknowledgment that a problem does indeed exist and they’re trying to solve it, and while Sammy Watkins is a nice start, the buck shouldn’t stop with him. Whoever they take, however they acquire them, and whatever development plan they put them on, the Ravens are in complete control of their fate at every single position on the field, including the one that they may feel cursed at.

Some annoyance with the constant dialogue from fans and media about it is understandable, but it must be remembered that there’s a reason fans are particularly fired up these days. For the first time since prime Joe Flacco, Baltimore fans have a quarterback worth giving a damn about, and many of them are worried that he won’t be given the requisite help he needs to reach the Super Bowl like Flacco was back in 2012.

Whether that’s a rational fear or not is a different conversation, but to the same point about “winning games” that DeCosta made, there are other teams within the AFC that have both made significant investments at receiver, and gone farther than Baltimore in the playoffs with Lamar at the helm. DeCosta and the Ravens staff deserve ample credit for the quick turnaround from the Flacco era to a new generation of winning football under Jackson, but with that regular season success comes postseason expectations.

The Ravens have their first playoff win with Lamar under their belt now, and have an opportunity to continue building off of it as we move forward. Modernizing the operation will be key, and some tough conversations both in and regarding the receiver room will have to happen for that to continue to take place.

That conversation might be one that Eric DeCosta is tired of having at this point, but it’s in his hands (and pretty much his alone) to do away with it once and for all, or at least many years to come. Here’s hoping next week’s draft is a good start towards doing so.