Eric DeCosta is fresh off what might have been the most unique summer of his five-year tenure as the Ravens general manager.
There was his star quarterback Lamar Jackson, who requested a trade privately — and then publicly — as their dramatic contract dispute dominated the NFL offseason. And there was running back J.K. Dobbins, who appeared to have held out for most of the offseason, hoping for a new contract.
But one of the most shocking moments of the summer came due to the calls DeCosta was receiving from general managers. Not those teams seeking to trade for Jackson when he asked out, but the executives asking about the availability of the Ravens’ receivers.
“I actually thought it was a joke at first,” DeCosta said with a smile.
The Ravens have had a long and dreadful history with wide receivers; generally DeCosta has been the one floating trade ideas to bolster the position, not the other way around. The organization has never drafted a player selected to the Pro Bowl as a receiver, and three of the top six players on the franchise list for most receiving yards play a different position.
Only eight receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards in the franchise’s history. (For reference, Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans has nine 1,000-yard seasons in nine years.) The Ravens have drafted six wide receivers in the first round in franchise history, and only Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, taken No. 25 overall in 2019, has eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single season.
So DeCosta’s smile was somewhat rueful, as finding productive receivers has been challenging for him and this organization since its inception in 1996. But things have changed for the Ravens. DeCosta went out this summer seemingly focusing on upgrading the receiving core, likely to entice his disgruntled star quarterback to return.
The Ravens signed veteran receiver Nelson Agholor, then Odell Beckham Jr., and drafted Zay Flowers with the No. 22 pick in the draft. All while receiver Rashod Bateman, who DeCosta drafted in the first round two years ago, was set to return.
“Let’s pump the brakes,” said former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail, who had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the three years he played in Baltimore.
Ismail pointed to the 2010 Ravens wide receiving group with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Donté Stallworth.
There were massive expectations and hype around that group, and Ismail remembered a conversation with then-general manager Ozzie Newsome, who told Ismail how the “ball never hit the ground” at practice.
But the receivers struggled in the biggest game of the season, the 2011 divisional round playoff game against the Steelers. Boldin dropped a touchdown pass, and Houshmandzadeh dropped a pass on the Ravens’ last possession of the game that would have given them a first down with a minute remaining, down three points with a chance to keep the season alive.
“My point is not to degrade any receiving corps, but I’m saying until you look back on, rather than looking ahead, all this is just fantasy football talk,” said Ismail. “We don’t know what Zay Flowers can do when it comes to the regular season. We don’t know what Rashod Bateman is going to be feeling like consistently health-wise throughout the year. We don’t know Odell Beckham’s stamina; we know his talent.”
The Ravens receivers are also asking to pump the brakes on any best-ever superlatives for now. But they all acknowledge the group’s potential.
Beyond the skill of the players, the addition of veterans has given the wide receiver room a different feel and focus, third-year receiver Tylan Wallace said.
The Ravens haven’t ever had a player with the colossal celebrity Beckham has. In meetings, Beckham’s critiques and opinions hold a different value and respect. (There’s also the fact that Wallace is one of the many Ravens who grew up idolizing Beckham, and the Ravens had an end zone route last year named, “Odell.”)
“The past few years we had young guys; we didn’t really have any true vets,” Wallace said, adding: “I think it’s just different having guys of this caliber in the room.”
Beckham has embraced his role as the veteran in the room and, in his words, as the guy everyone “used to watch in middle school.” But Beckham said he still learns from everyone in the room, even young players like Flowers, Wallace and Bateman.
“We have a pretty selfless demeanor in that room, and we know whoever’s in has got to be the one that has to make plays, and if they need to come out, whoever comes in is going to make plays,” Beckham said. “That’s the mentality we carry in that room is, ‘We’re going to make plays.’ So, I’m just excited to be a part of this. ...
“This is the best group I’ve played with right now, in this moment,” Beckham added with a smile, refraining from comparing any past receiving corps to the Ravens.
When the Ravens take the field this Sunday against the Houston Texans, how this receiving group performs — especially with the return of Beckham — will garner national attention.
It will be their first opportunity to prove the hype, the Ravens’ decision-makers, and, perhaps most of all, themselves, right.