Throughout the first fifteen season of John Harbaugh’s tenure in Baltimore, the Ravens operated as perhaps the most stability-minded club in the league. ‘Contend Every Season’ was their constant refrain. Valuable players were traded away for draft picks, compensatory picks were hoarded, splashy acquisitions were mostly avoided and future salary cap space preserved in an effort to ensure future teams maintained a high floor.
The theory was that if they consistently made the playoffs, they would break through to the latter rounds eventually. Unfortunately, the club failed to break through, reaching the divisional round only thrice in the last decade without a conference championship game appearance. The Ravens were swimming upstream, hoping to defeat contenders in the postseason while at a talent disadvantage.
Gone were the days of draft and develop, stay the course, defense wins championships. More successful franchises became much more aggressive in trading away premium draft capital and borrowing from future salary caps to add the players necessary to win-now. The price of poker was going up and the game had changed.
General manager Eric DeCosta, Ozzie Newsome’s successor, showed increasing signs of aggression in recent seasons. He traded a third round pick for a half season rental of Yannick Ngakoue in 2020, paid prime-age talent Marcus Williams handsomely last offseason and traded a second round pick for a half season rental of Roquan Smith last season. But the 2023 offseason is when DeCosta fully embraced the win-now era.
The first domino was replacing Greg Roman with Todd Monken as offensive coordinator. Harbaugh and DeCosta seemingly came to the conclusion that while Roman’s medieval scheme could rack up regular season wins, including a very respectable eight win 2021 campaign with arguably the most injured team in NFL history, a one-dimensional offense was no match for the AFC’s stable of gunslingers. Baltimore needed the ability to chase points when the game script went sideways and the variance provided by a high octane passing offense to advance in the AFC. Monken was hired to orchestrate a passing offense with a championship ceiling.
Modernizing the scheme wouldn't be enough without improved receiving personnel. So DeCosta, against his stated philosophy, bit the bullet and overpaid Odell Beckham Jr. Inking a 30-year old wideout, with declining metrics and after a year away from the game, for $15 million guaranteed was panned as a desperate overpay. Nevertheless, Newsome’s ‘Right player, Right price’ mantra was replaced by ‘Right player, Right fit’. DeCosta was willing to pay up in order to win-now.
Beckham’s contract was made possible by the use of void years, a contract structure that allows the team to automatically defer a chunk of the cap hit until the player is no longer under contract. Hyper aggressive teams had been looked down upon for using this contract structure that mortgages future salary cap space. Yet borrowing resources from future seasons did not deter DeCosta this offseason. After completely avoiding this contract structure until this offseason, Baltimore currently has eight contracts that contain void years on their 2023 ledger.
Even with the third most prorated money in the league entering training camp, the roster still wasn’t strong enough for DeCosta. With Tyus Bowser nursing a knee injury and Marlon Humphrey on the shelf following minor foot surgery, the pass defense desperately needed reinforcements in mid-August. So Baltimore signed Jadaveon Clowney and Ronald Darby. While the sizes of their contracts were unimpressive, their acquisitions were, for different reasons. Clowney, a former top overall pick who reportedly quit on his team last season, represented a departure from Harbaugh’s preference for overachievers with tenacious work ethic. And Darby signaled that the Ravens were no longer content to rely on the development of unproven young players during a championship window.
The most recent example was the release of fifth round rookie Kyu Kelly on Tuesday. Baltimore rarely jettisons a rookie selected before the sixth round. Yet team brass decided rostering a journeyman capable of contributing during the first quarter of this season was more valuable than retaining a player who could provide depth throughout the length of his rookie contract. Winning now was more important than long-term stability.
All in all, the Ravens are not as deep on the defensive side of the football as they have been, as evidenced by their pair of preseason losses. But by adding star power to the most essential phases of modern football, pass offense and pass defense, they have a higher ceiling than at any point since their last Super Bowl victory. DeCosta successful squeezed the last bit of juice he responsibly could to put Baltimore on equal footing with the AFC’s elite rosters.
There is no guarantee that any of these decisions will push the Ravens over the top. However, they finally have an honest chance to pass through a gauntlet of loaded teams in the postseason. However this season and future seasons play out, the Ravens should be commended for pivoting from their stability-focused habits that lowered their single-season ceiling, and finally embracing the NFL’s win-now era.