The decks are clearing, and the stage is being set. At the eleventh hour of the true NFL offseason (that is, up until the end of the draft prior to the dog days of Summer), the Baltimore Ravens and their General Manager Eric DeCosta are just a day or so away from what will be a pivotal moment in his career so far.
That is, the opening of the 2021 NFL Draft, a collective process which typically manages to carry about as much pomp and circumstance as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, while actually only being about assigning young football players to a team. But despite as much fun as it can be, DeCosta and the Ravens can’t afford to (and assuredly won’t) get caught up in all of that - just like the other 31 NFL teams in their position, they’ve got a job to do.
Speaking of position, that’s where things differ a bit this year from most others. In both their actual place in the picking order, and where things stand with the franchise, DeCosta and the Ravens are in a most unique one indeed.
It was 25 years ago around this time that the newly minted Ravens, fresh off of a controversial move and rebrand, put all of the negative press behind them and selected two players in the first round of that year’s draft. As well all know, Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis would go on to become Hall of Famers, and it was the keen eye of Ozzie Newsome (at a pivotal point of his own in those days) that guided Baltimore forward to a Super Bowl championship on the strength of those picks.
In a move that could be described as controversial, the Ravens set themselves up to pick twice in the first round this Thursday night: shipping off tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs netted them a spot at 31 (following a swap that included the Ravens second rounder), plus a third and a fourth round pick from Kansas City this year. The consensus among trade value estimations is that Baltimore got effectively a first round pick for Brown, worthy compensation in the opinion of most.
Where things begin to get interesting is the destination, and maybe even more interesting, Eric DeCosta’s tacit indifference to said destination. It’s hard to consider the Chiefs a “rival” to the Ravens when one side is now three up on the other in the Lamar Jackson/Patrick Mahomes era, but it’s certainly fair to say that Baltimore (an AFC hopeful, if not necessarily favorite) would see them as their main obstacle in the goal of getting to a Super Bowl.
So to send a Pro Bowl player, disgruntled or otherwise and for a great draft capital haul or otherwise, is a move deserving of some of the shockwaves it registered (in all directions). It’s also one that potentially can put them in position to finally close the gap with KC if this move pans out as they hope, which is why the move itself is incredibly bold if nothing else.
It might be a bit of a far flung comparison, but I’m reminded of (*Mad Men Spoiler Alert*) Don Draper’s risky play to spurn the entire tobacco industry by penning a letter decrying the dangers of smoking:
Of course the real reason he chose to do so was that due to his ad agencies struggles, their top account in Lucky Strike walked out the door and left them out in the cold. Never to be left on the back foot, the morally questionable Don got out in front of the situation and published the above letter to present a strong and righteous front as opposed to one that portrays him and his company as desperate or dejected.
Eric DeCosta has gotten out in front of something here: He either doesn’t fear (or, possibly wants us to think he doesn’t fear) the Kansas City Chiefs despite them being Baltimore’s regular season boogeyman for the last three years. Part of the subtext of the “Mad Men” storyline is Don’s unwillingness to show any weakness or vulnerability, and how it can at times hurt him and those around him (the move leads to the firing of loads of staff, if otherwise proving to be a smart long term play); after his comments about being “insulted” regarding the sentiment about his young receivers, we know Eric DeCosta to be a pretty proud man in his own right.
The question in this case is, of course, will his hubristic (or at least hubristic adjacent) move to ignore Kansas City’s place in the pecking order on this trade provide Baltimore with that same long term gain? It’ll be hard to determine that until the Fall when the results of it begin to bear out on the field, but the more immediate litmus test we can look to is this weekend.
DeCosta has sent the message to the league that he isn’t afraid to take big swings, and he’s not afraid of helping out an alleged rival in doing so either. His best chance at coming out looking like a bandit (or a successful but troubled ad executive from the 1960’s) is to take full advantage of the unique position he now finds himself in.
It’s not often a GM who’s used to picking at the end of the round each year finds himself with two picks in the first, but with those as well as the two thirds, fourths, and fifths that they have at their disposal, the time is right for the Ravens to truly make some noise. The time is right in many other ways as well, the chief among them being the status of their franchise quarterback.
John Harbaugh confirmed that Lamar Jackson will be receiving the fifth year option, and it seems to be all but a formality that he’ll be receiving a long term, face-of-the-franchise type extension in short order. As much as he is a transcendent talent, the time where he’ll be both affordable and still somewhat disabused of the scarring that can occur when a quarterback isn’t properly propped up by surrounding talent may be quickly approaching.
While that isn’t to say Jackson has been given nothing to work with throughout his already very successful career, looking at his receiving corps vs. a team like, say, Kansas City for example, and you could foresee some potential consternation brewing if things aren’t improved in 2021. In other words, the time is now, and the stage is set.
The no-fear move to ship off Brown leaves a hole at right tackle. Another receiver, plus a day one ready EDGE are also going to be targets for EDC and co. come Thursday and Friday night. These are all positions that are well represented and deep, and with two first rounders plus an arsenal of picks on Days 2 and 3, they’ll have every opportunity to grab players that will project as impact starters; not something that can always be said when it comes to the draft.
While it would be a classic Ravens move to stay strictly true to their board and attempt to trade back at every turn, that may not cut it in a draft (and a 2021 season) in which they set a tone by declaring themselves as unafraid, either of big moves or the competition that’s involved in them.
After a somewhat up and down offseason, Eric DeCosta has a chance to utilize this unique position that he’s in to make yet another statement starting on Thursday night.
As some have speculated, it could prove to be the most pivotal draft of his entire career. In the interest of quelling tired narratives, engendering some good will in a somewhat frustrated fanbase, and continuing to put a successful product on the field, here’s hoping he nails it.