Want to put the heat on an NFL general manager who is new to the job and happens to be replacing a legend? Have one traditional rival open the door a crack, then see a decidedly traditional non-non-rivalry slam it shut right back on you.
That was life for Eric DeCosta and the Ravens — the defending AFC North champion Ravens, it’s easy to forget — as NFL free agency officially began. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell did, in fact, exit the Steelers, and a wave of newcomers led by Odell Beckham Jr. arrived in Cleveland. By comparison, the Ravens looked as if they were playing catch-up.
Even when they later reeled in two big free agents that fit needs specific to their roster and philosophy and to their division battles (Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas), the verdict was not in yet on whether they were still the chaser or the chased. Their mindset still is that verdicts do not have to be in six months before the regular season starts. The agreements with Thomas and Ingram were a bracing reminder of that, having been reported chronologically after the soap operas in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and elsewhere.
But, in their defense, the Ravens had more or less warned the football world that jumping to conclusions about the clout factor of their offseason moves was dangerous.
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Baltimore issued a lot of these warnings as it was re-signing a pair of important core players, slot corner Tavon Young and blocking tight end Nick Boyle … and as a wave of signature names like Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley departed.
The Ravens are changing, and trying to remain contenders, on the fly. The context for them is drastically different than what’s happening in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, converging on different planes.
All things considered, the Ravens might be in the middle of a more intense shakeup than either rival. They are handing the keys to Lamar Jackson and bringing the era of Flacco — the only starter coach John Harbaugh has ever had and the MVP of one of the two Super Bowl wins in franchise history — to an end.
Adding to the peculiar limbo they are in: Since that Super Bowl 47 victory, they have won just one playoff game and missed the postseason four times, yet they were catapulted into the playoffs last year off the seven-game stretch of starts by Jackson, who ascended at least a half-season ahead of schedule.
The challenge, then, is to build around a second-year quarterback with unique, non-traditional skills under the watch of a coach heading into his 12th season and a general manager, DeCosta, just now stepping into the role for which the now-retired Ozzie Newsome has long groomed him.
DeCosta’s mindset is … well, the Ravens’ mindset as set in place by Newsome for two decades. Even with that door there to be stepped through despite all the traffic, he is playing the long game, out of necessity, because their quarterback is there for the long haul.
“We see good young players leave us every year,” DeCosta told the Associated Press earlier this week (speaking specifically of Mosley and fellow departing young free agents John Brown and Za’Darius Smith). “We’ve tried to adjust over time, but I think now is a great opportunity for us to become financially responsible, to get control over the salary cap to understand the concept of right player, right price.”
That was the idea between getting Young and Boyle locked in before the market on either blew up. The money the Ravens spent on Ingram and Thomas — who will both be 30 by season’s end — is reasonable, and both wanted to be someplace where they could continue to win. They have a cap edge on the Steelers with Jackson still on his rookie contract, and on the Browns without having a big contract like that of Beckham on the books.
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On the other hand, time will tell whether they have the offensive support around their young quarterback that the Browns have around Baker Mayfield, and the exodus left sizable holes in last year’s top-ranked defense.
Those are holes and doubts that are still open in March, though. DeCosta was asked about the timetable of Baltimore’s offseason last month, after Young was re-signed and before the NFL Combine and, of course, free agency.
“We have a plan, and I think hopefully that’ll kind of come to fruition over the next two, three, four weeks, whatever it is,” he said. “But the big thing is, this is a good first step for us.”
It wasn’t the last step, and neither were all the steps they and their rivals took at the dawn of the new league year.
The clock is ticking, though, for the Ravens to make sure that in the new universe in their division, their steps pay off the most.
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