The way Eric DeCosta sees it, building an NFL team is a lot like maintaining a house. Every year, there’s something to fix, add, replace, all within budget. Sometimes there’s a kitchen — or a wide receiver room — to renovate. Other times, there’s a pipe to clean, or a long snapper to re-sign.
The Ravens general manager offered the analogy at Wednesday’s predraft news conference as the face of the franchise loomed over his every word. Only a week earlier, Lamar Jackson had announced his trade request. Now an image of the star quarterback, projected onto a screen alongside 10 other standout Ravens, served as the backdrop for the team’s latest attempt to handle the NFL’s most volatile question: How do you build on something with an unsettled foundation?
There were few answers from DeCosta, coach John Harbaugh or director of player personnel Joe Hortiz. In his first comments since designating Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag last month — a move that apparently came after Jackson had requested a trade in early March — DeCosta declined to comment on where the team stood with Jackson.
“I understand the need to ask those kind of questions,” he said Wednesday. “I think, just out of respect for the process, this is a draft luncheon, and we’re going to try to keep as much of this discussion as we can to the draft, to the coming weeks, building the best football team we can build. So I understand those questions. I think we’ve spoken about this situation.”
Practically, little has changed over the past month. Jackson, who’s representing himself in contract talks, is still free to negotiate a long-term deal with other teams, though the Ravens could match any offer sheet he signs. If the Ravens grant his trade request, Jackson would need to agree to a new deal before a swap could be finalized.
Either way, the Ravens would likely end up with significant draft capital. Choose not to match an offer sheet, and they’d get two first-round draft picks from Jackson’s suitor as compensation. Trade him away, and they’d probably get that and more.
For now, Jackson is both the answer to the Ravens’ preferred 2023 quarterback plan and also the key to the franchise’s private backup plan. If the Ravens believe a reconciliation is possible, they’ll look to build around Jackson and his below-market-value $32.4 million salary in this month’s draft. If the Ravens believe a divorce is inevitable, they’ll look to turn Jackson into the assets they need to acquire their next franchise quarterback.
On Wednesday, DeCosta approached the notion of drafting a quarterback with a dispassionate remove. Could the Ravens take one in the first round? “It depends on the board. It really does. I mean, I’d have to say yes because we have quarterbacks in our top 31, so just based on that alone, simple math, I would have to say yes.”
Have they spent more time looking at quarterbacks? “I wouldn’t say we’ve necessarily done that. We kind of treat the pro days the same. We always canvass. We always send a lot of guys out. We always try to have a position coach at almost every pro day.”
Would the Ravens like Jackson’s situation resolved before the draft? “I think the things that we can control are really getting the list — the draft board — set, evaluating the players as best as possible, being aware of the players, the free agents that are available now, post-draft, who are the players that we might have a chance to bring in post-draft that can make us a better football team as well. And then doing the best job we can in terms of recruiting free agents.”
In January, DeCosta said he and Harbaugh were uninterested in a “total rebuild,” which Jackson’s exit might require. With the free-agent class picked clean of potential starting quarterbacks, the draft offers the Ravens their best chance to find Jackson’s long-term successor. Even there, though, they face a numbers crunch.
DeCosta said Wednesday that there’s “probably more than four guys” who could be “significant quarterbacks” in this draft class. (“That really narrows it down for you,” Harbaugh joked.) Pointing to Tom Brady (a sixth-round pick), Tyrod Taylor (sixth round) and Brock Purdy (undrafted), DeCosta said it was “quite possible” to find a good quarterback “at any point in the draft.”
But the calculus on drafting the position has changed in recent years. Most quarterbacks with starter-level tools don’t make it out of the first round. In this year’s draft, the four best prospects might not make it out of the top 10. Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis all have their flaws, but their team-friendly rookie contracts could make them more appealing than the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, if only because of the potentially historic deal necessary to sign Jackson.
The Ravens have only so many options, only so much time. The draft starts April 27. The Ravens will pick No. 22 overall, and then not again until No. 86 overall, barring a trade. To build on last year’s playoff appearance, they’ll need a quarterback. To keep Jackson, they’ll need to negotiate a shared future. To trade Jackson, they’ll need to find a partner and fair terms. And to get wherever they’re going, they’ll need to keep up the facade they presented Wednesday: committed to nothing, open to everything.
“We go into every draft trying to take any kind of bias out, any kind of need-based situation out of the draft equation,” DeCosta said. “We really do try to build a board that’s really ‘best player available.’ ... Really trying to assess this player versus that player, and it’s really just comparisons and how these players stack up. Who do we think has the best chance to come in and make us the best football team?
“And so, if that’s a quarterback, if that’s a receiver, a corner, an offensive tackle, we’re going to look at that very strongly and make the best decision we can, knowing that, over time, we think building a team [with the] best available player is the right way to go.”