Legendary general manager Ozzie Newsome established the guiding principles that have driven the success of the Baltimore Ravens organization. During the Ted Marchibroda and Brian Billick era, Ravens Way version 1.0, Newsome drafted franchise icons Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister and Jamal Lewis using a ‘Best Player Available’ strategy. He supplemented his homegrown stars with star free agents including future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe, resulting in the franchise’s first championship.
Head coach John Harbaugh helped usher in a new era of Ravens football, version 2.0. Joe Flacco, the first franchise quarterback in team history, was added to an established core of future Ring of Honor members: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Marshal Yanda. With a championship worthy foundation of personnel in place, Newsome used his ‘80/20’ rule to bolster the roster with role players, resulting in a run of five consecutive divisional round appearances and culminating in the Ravens second Super Bowl victory.
Following the second championship, owner Steve Bisciotti set a noble ‘contend every season’ directive. Newsome arguably began to overemphasize the value of draft picks, using the compensatory pick equation to dictate free agency and frequently trading down on draft day. The infamous Anquan Boldin trade symbolized the Ravens preference for high character depth over stars. The strategy of signing bargain free agent stopgaps and focusing on value in the draft did not produce the same level of success when the foundation of cornerstone players was depleted. After three conference championship appearances during their first five seasons, Harbaugh and Flacco never advanced past the divisional round in any of their final six years together.
Before handing the reins to his longtime protege Eric DeCosta, Newsome picked franchise altering quarterback Lamar Jackson with the final first round selection of his tenure. Despite Jackson almost singlehandedly providing a potent offense and solving longstanding salary cap issues, DeCosta was thrust into a difficult situation. The league was changing due to the proliferation of passing and advancements in analytics. Gone were the days of Patriots and Steelers style continuity dominating the league. Multiple teams began going ‘all-in’ to build star studded juggernauts, the NFL was entering the win-now era.
DeCosta was challenged to contend every season while competing against franchises that were not bound to a long-term sustainability model. He had to develop a modernized version of the Ravens Way philosophy to prevent Baltimore from becoming a perennial also-ran. Threading the needle between somewhat opposing goals of constructing rosters with a high enough ceiling to make deep postseason runs and a high enough floor to avoid uncompetitive seasons was complicated.
In his first opportunity as final decision maker, DeCosta displayed his aggressiveness by signing Earl Thomas to a lucrative deal, selecting field-stretching wideout Marquise Brown in the first round and trading for ballhawk Marcus Peters in-season. The following offseason, DeCosta swung for a high upside linebacker Patrick Queen in the draft, traded for stalwart Calais Campbell and parted with draft capital for mercenary pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Last offseason, the forward-thinking general manager took another big swing for playmaker Rashod Bateman and chose athleticism over collegiate production with the selection of Odafe Oweh.
With an ascending core of premium position talent in place and his legs fully underneath him as general manager, DeCosta was not content to rest on his laurels and let the offseason come to him this year. His first splash was inking rangy free safety Marcus Williams to a 5-year pact, a move that will have beneficial trickle down effects to every defensive player and the scheme as a whole. Due to his youth, consistency and rare skillset, Williams was perhaps the best free agent available this cycle. Next, DeCosta signed steady offensive tackle Morgan Moses, bolstering the depth chart’s most crucial need. Still not satisfied, the Ravens reunited with versatile pass rusher Za’Darius Smith on an incentive-laded 4-year contract.
DeCosta, like all general managers, has made some missteps during his first few seasons. However, he has found a way to blend Newsome’s sustainability blueprint with the NFL’s win-now era. By refusing to overpay in free agency or part with his most valuable draft capital, DeCosta has put the Ravens in position to enjoy the best of both worlds. They now have the resources to contend every season while still stacking up against ‘all-in’ franchises. The key has been maximizing roster construction efficiency by opting for a top heavy payroll and investing in premium positions.
On paper, the Ravens now match up well against all of their AFC rivals. With pass defenders Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Marcus Williams, Za’Darius Smith, Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser, they can generate turnovers and limit explosive plays against top offenses such as the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals and Chargers. An offense with playmakers Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman and J.K. Dobbins behind a hopefully improved offensive line is capable of simply outscoring more rugged contenders such as the Browns, Titans and Patriots.
By cultivating a depth chart with an ample supply of difference makers at the most impactful positions, DeCosta has built a team with the stars necessary to advance past any postseason game script. And he did so while respecting the Ravens traditional strategies. While costly, Williams, Moses and Smith all agreed to below market contracts that will not force the team to mortgage future salary caps unnecessarily. Furthermore, the Ravens will still use their 10 draft picks and fruitful undrafted free agent scouting to ensure they maintain a deep roster that can withstand short term injuries.
In totality, DeCosta has melded Newsome’s philosophies with the modern NFL beautifully. Baltimore may not win the Super Bowl in the near future, health and luck are unpredictable. Nonetheless, the Ravens have enough championship caliber cornerstones again, players who elevate their teammates, and minimize the need for near optimal health and playoff luck. Assembling as many premium position cornerstones as possible is best method to elevate both the floor and ceiling of the team on an annual basis.
With Ravens Way version 3.0, they can contend. And not just for the wildcard or divisional round. Baltimore can truly contend for the Super Bowl. Every season.
*This article was published before news of the Za’Darius Smith reversal. The themes of Ravens Way version 3.0 remain unchanged.