The best teams in sports set realistic expectations, both for the long-term and for tomorrow.
Only John Harbaugh can say for sure, but on Monday, it sure felt like he was setting an appropriate expectation for the Ravens at the trade deadline the following day: “I love our guys. I think we have everything we need to be successful.”
As a long-time expert parser of coach speak, I thought Harbaugh was acknowledging it was about to be a quiet 24 hours in Baltimore, despite speculation to the contrary.
In this case, the 6-2 Ravens do have a lot to like: Advanced metrics say they’ve been one of the NFL’s best teams nearly halfway through the season (they lead the league in DVOA), and they say they’re getting healthier, with possible reinforcements like safety Marcus Williams, outside linebacker Tyus Bowser and cornerback Damarion “Pepe” Williams waiting in the wings.
After standing pat at this trade deadline, Baltimore better be right. Even before the playoffs, they’re going to face immediate feedback on that decision.
The surprisingly frisky 5-2 Seattle Seahawks added Giants Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leonard Williams to their defensive front. A Ravens offense that took time to gain ground against an unspectacular Arizona defense will see a substantially more threatening Seattle unit that has 26 sacks.
Down the line, an already anticipated Christmas matchup against the San Francisco 49ers has even more juice: The Niners added Washington edge rusher Chase Young to a front that already includes Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa, forcing opposing offensive lines to make difficult decisions about who to double-team.
You can only control the personnel decisions in front of you, and it might be somewhat encouraging that the most impactful moves strengthened NFC teams. In the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns moved on from receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in a trade to the Lions, so in essence more talent flowed out of the Ravens’ division than in.
But it might be two Commanders deals that make folks wonder the most: Young was had for a third-round pick, while Montez Sweat went to Chicago for a second-round pick. Considering the distance between the Ravens’ potential second-round pick next year and the Bears’, the price for Sweat probably would have been hard for Baltimore to meet.
But Young? Could Baltimore have done that deal?
While the Ravens lead the NFL with 31 sacks, you have to question if that is a realistic reflection of how their front seven actually is playing. There are plenty of question marks on the edges: Will Odafe Oweh remain healthy? Will Bowser and David Ojabo get healthy? Can journeymen Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy maintain a respectable level of play as the opponents get more difficult?
Getting Young would have added upside to a group that feels patchwork at times. The Ravens have played next man up admirably, but the sustainability of that approach feels shaky at best. Despite the sack performance, Baltimore is just 13th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (46%). Young ranks 11th in the NFL among edge rushers in that metric, better than any Ravens edge player except Clowney (7th).
General manager Eric DeCosta knows this team much better than any outside observer, and he has done plenty right in his tenure. NFL trades are already more difficult and rare than in other pro leagues, and when Baltimore deals, they prefer to get more bang for their buck. Under DeCosta, many times they have.
Revisiting last year’s blockbuster for Roquan Smith, Harbaugh called acquiring the inside linebacker for second- and fifth-round picks “one of the all-time great trades that we’ve made,” a judgment that bears out given that Smith is now locked up long term. Getting Marcus Peters in 2019 for a fifth-round pick and Kenny Young also wound up being a strong acquisition at the time, even though Peters’ tenure has now passed.
Perhaps there was no trade available that presented such a clear “win” for the Ravens. Perhaps they were never in position to get Young or Sweat, or anyone else of note.
The Ravens are also incentivized to stockpile draft picks given their salary cap outlook. San Francisco has the financial advantage of not paying a big quarterback contract, giving them more space to sign Young to a long-term deal if he succeeds. In Baltimore, Young was more likely to be a rental no matter how he played. The Ravens have enough defensive players in contract years who are playing well without adding a 24-year-old pass rusher set to make big, big money to the mix.
But at a certain point, you have to push your chips in the middle. This season feels like a prime opportunity: Lamar Jackson is enjoying some of his best passing efficiency of his career, the defense has been one of the NFL’s best, and the other AFC contenders have been inconsistent. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs were just kneecapped by the miserable Broncos; the explosive Dolphins have been undercut by an underwhelming defense; the Jaguars been winning by the skin of their teeth — you couldn’t ask for a better field of competition to rise above.
Adding to the calculations: The Ravens have more cap flexibility now than they will even next year, as the big-money contracts they’ve inked eat more cap space. They’ll likely feel pressure move money around to extend other in-their-prime veterans. Maybe no viable big swing was on the table this season, but it seems even less likely in 2024 and 2025.
It takes discipline to do nothing. Being active at a trade deadline always feels like the team is taking destiny into its own hands, and thus feels better than inaction in the moment. The Ravens know the downside of following that instinct, after a 2020 bust of a trade for Yannick Ngakoue cost them draft equity.
But the Ravens also received a compensatory pick when Ngakoue moved on, salving some of the sting. That is also a potential outcome for the Niners with Young, an argument that maybe the Ravens should have been bigger players for him.
Baltimore’s discipline has to lead somewhere worthwhile. These Ravens need to make the AFC Championship at the very least if they stay healthy. If they don’t, a fan base accustomed to high standards will be wondering what the upside really is of this roster. The financial commitments DeCosta has already made will make it harder and harder to wheel and deal.
That evaluation process starts, however, even before the playoffs, with the games against Seattle and San Francisco serving as their own referendums: If Baltimore struggles at the line of scrimmage, a lot of backseat GMs will second-guess the front office.
The last thing you want is for your own fans to wonder if the guys on the other team could have been wearing purple and black.