If the general manager is the quarterback of the front office, then in March Eric DeCosta was feeling the pocket collapse.
But, in his own way, the 52-year-old New England native can make plays happen.
As the Ravens have thrown, dashed and sacked their way to a 9-3 record atop the AFC through 12 weeks, the architect of the roster has taken a back seat. DeCosta hasn’t held a news conference since September — and if you look at the executives who have needed to have news conferences this season, they’ve rarely been for a positive reason.
But DeCosta’s decisions — some controversial at the time — have pushed this team into the upper echelon of the NFL, thanks to a mix of record-breaking contracts for top players, bloodless cutting of ties with veterans and spectacular hits on bargain signings. With the benefit of hindsight, here’s an evaluation of DeCosta’s major decisions this offseason and the influence they’ve had (for better or worse).
The easiest explanation for the Ravens’ good vibes is the cloud that’s cleared over the team. DeCosta signed Lamar Jackson to a then-record-setting five-year contract. To be frank, paying Jackson was an easy decision — but DeCosta deserves mountains of credit for setting the organizational tone of being receptive even as Jackson made a public trade demand (that he later said was a tactic).
Obviously this is working out. Jackson is having his most efficient passing season since his 2019 MVP year. Although his passing touchdowns (13) are down from that campaign (36), his completion percentage is at a career high (68.3%) and his interception rate has dropped to its MVP-season level (1.5%). He’s also been remarkably effective as a rusher (he became the fastest QB to 5,000 rushing yards last week) and the red-zone offense has improved under Todd Monken. He’s the No. 7-graded QB by Pro Football Focus after his so-so performance against the Los Angeles Chargers took him down a few spots.
Beyond Jackson’s performance, the most compelling point in DeCosta’s favor is what’s happened to the other quarterbacks among the league’s best-paid passers. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow is done for the season. L.A.’s Justin Herbert and Buffalo’s Josh Allen are stuck on teams that might not make the playoffs. Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson is injured again. Arizona’s Kyler Murray is just now on the comeback trail from injury for a bad team.
Among the biggest earners, only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts have led their teams to the kind of success that Jackson has this season. A great quarterback is the hardest piece to get for a contender, and Jackson has helped the Ravens be in position for the top overall seed.
It should be remembered, too, that DeCosta signed another record-breaking contract: inside linebacker Roquan Smith to $100 million for five years. That’s big money for a position that is seen as less glamorous in the modern NFL, but Smith has delivered. He has the second-most tackles in the league (126) and the third-highest pass coverage grade by PFF, and he is widely considered the heart of the defense.
This season, coach John Harbaugh called DeCosta’s trade for Smith “one of the all-time great trades that we’ve made.” Doubling down on Smith for a long-term deal fills a huge role in the Ravens’ defense for a long time.
The one huge deal that is not an out-and-out win is the $15 million signing of Odell Beckham Jr., but the final grade on that is still to come. Recall that signing Beckham was a kind of peace offering to Jackson before he agreed to an extension. Beckham is one of the 25 highest-paid NFL receivers and has not produced like it (27 receptions, 408 yards, 2 TDs), but he’s warmed up in the last four games and is likely to play a bigger role in the offense with tight end Mark Andrews out.
Knowing when to say goodbye
With big payouts come a slew of difficult decisions to stay under the salary cap. A number of beloved veterans didn’t return: safety Chuck Clark, DL Calais Campbell and OLB Justin Houston. Notably, Houston and Campbell were two of Baltimore’s best pass rushers, which was a huge offseason question mark. The Ravens also lost talented guard Ben Powers to Denver and let corner Marcus Peters (who had tremendous highs but also lows) walk.
If you look at what those guys are doing now, DeCosta’s decisions, as painful as they were, were largely correct.
Campbell crossed the 100-sack mark for his career this year, but he is playing for an unremarkable Falcons team. Houston was a late pickup for an even less remarkable Panthers team. Clark, sadly, was lost for the year with an injury before the season began. Peters was released by the Raiders this week, another uncordial parting of ways in his turbulent career.
Letting the vets walk was, in one sense, a bet on the talent already in the building. At some of those key positions, Justin Madubuike, Geno Stone and Brandon Stephens are enjoying the best seasons of their careers. John Simpson has not been particularly revelatory, but Tyler Linderbaum and Kevin Zeitler are two of the best pass and run blockers, respectively, and the Ravens have a top-10 mark in pass-block win rate (9th) and run-block win rate (3rd), undoubtedly getting a boost from Patrick Ricard.
One big draft hit (at least)
Although Zay Flowers may need notes from teammates on when to go down to run out clock, the rookie has been a smashing success — which has rarely been the case when the Ravens select a receiver in Round 1. He’s got 58 receptions, he averages more than 10 yards per touch, and his three total touchdowns are almost certainly just the start of his scoring impact.
DeCosta said Flowers was the highest-graded receiver on the Ravens’ board before the draft, and honestly it feels as if they could use him more, perhaps as a returner. But Flowers has played more than 86% of offensive snaps and is a workhorse. It was unflattering for the Chargers to see him score twice after they passed on him for Quentin Johnston, who has been underwhelming.
Other selections in the draft have a long way to go before bearing fruit. Clemson LB Trenton Simpson was presumed to be groomed as a potential replacement for Patrick Queen, but he’s played only 15 defensive snaps in 12 games and largely is a special teamer. Sala Aumavae-Laulu faded after losing the guard battle to John Simpson in camp. DB Kyu Kelly was waived before the season started.
Maybe the second-best draftee is linebacker Tavius Robinson, who garnered his first sack against the Bengals and has contributed earlier than expected. If you count undrafted rookie running back Keaton Mitchell, the Ravens found an explosive playmaker there as well.
If contracts for Jackson and Smith were DeCosta’s spending spree in the NFL’s Rodeo Drive, he also made a killing at the flea market.
The Ravens’ best offseason signing didn’t join the team until Aug. 18. Jadeveon Clowney is in the midst of a renaissance season, punctuated recently by his forcing two fumbles and recovering one against the Chargers.
The 30-year-old has 7.5 sacks and is eighth in pass-rush win rate, a better mark than pass rushers such as Bryce Huff, T.J. Watt and Nick Bosa. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a journeyman, but DeCosta said in September that the Ravens have been eyeing Clowney for years. It’s probably turned out better than their wildest expectations. Baltimore also got a huge boost from Kyle Van Noy (6 sacks), helping compensate for injuries to David Ojabo and Tyus Bowser, who were originally seen as key pieces of the pass rush.
Marlon Humphrey has been dogged by injury much of the season, but the Ravens have held opposing offenses to 4.2 yards per passing attempt in spite of it, thanks in large part to returning players Stone and Stephens, and emerging star Kyle Hamilton. But signing Ronald Darby and Arthur Maulet helped hold the line on defense — both have been more impactful than Rock Ya-Sin, a more heralded addition (he’s played just 21% of snaps this season).
DeCosta also made low-cost deals to bring back RB Justice Hill and DT Brent Urban, veterans who have been serviceable. Free agent receiver Nelson Agholor sometimes felt like an afterthought when Harbaugh talked about the promise of his receiving room, but he’s been more productive (so far) than former first-rounder Rashod Bateman.
Delay, delay, delay
Personnel calls cannot be judged solely on one season, so the jury is out on some notable decisions DeCosta made that will have big consequences next offseason. The one that looms largest is the call not to exercise Queen’s $12.4 million option.
Queen is the Ravens’ jack-of-all-trades: He’s made 102 tackles, he is solid against the run and in coverage, and he is better than most middle linebackers as a pass rusher, too, with 3.5 sacks (the one he didn’t get against the Chargers aside). It’s worth wondering if Smith, the linebacker the Ravens paid, would be so dynamic without Queen beside him.
The Ravens are probably reluctant to have two of their highest-paid defenders be middle linebackers, but Queen is on track perhaps to exceed the value of the option in his next contract. As previously mentioned, Trenton Simpson has done little to suggest he’s ready to take over the spot next year.
The 2020 draft class is having a moment, and Stone and Madubuike will also be up for new deals next season. On an unfortunate note, 2020 second-round pick J.K. Dobbins agitated for a new contract this offseason but didn’t get one — and then the running back tore his Achilles in the first game of the year, which may spell the end of his Ravens career.
The loss of Dobbins has been a huge opportunity for Gus Edwards, who has a career-high 10 rushing touchdowns heading into his own contract year.
But that’s a 2024 problem (one of several that Jonas Shaffer explored in a recent story). For now, DeCosta can enjoy the fruits of his labors from the wings of the stage — a well-earned step back from the spotlight of an eventful offseason.