MOBILE, Ala. — Speaking in a serious, enthusiastic tone, Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta is seated a few hundred yards away from the site of the Senior Bowl.
The topic of conversation? The NFL draft, the Ravens’ respective needs and the merits of several players.
Ladd Peebles Stadium is where dozens of the top senior football players have been bashing into each other this week in an effort to impress the NFL brass.
With so much talent for this year’s pivotal draft all in one place, the Ravens are taking an aggressive approach to gathering as much information as possible to delineate the prospects from the suspects.
Following a 13-5 season that ended with a disastrous loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional playoff game triggered by three costly turnovers, the Ravens could use an influx of skill, size and speed at several positions.
Whether it’s acquiring an explosive deep threat at wide receiver, a versatile pass rusher to work in tandem with Terrell Suggs, a good pass-blocking offensive tackle, a physical, big interior offensive lineman, a hard-hitting inside linebacker with range, a faster, larger cornerback, a safety and a quarterback for depth, a convincing argument could be made about the wisdom of going in several different directions.
We caught up with DeCosta for a wide-ranging interview in between practices.
How important is it for the Ravens to take a hard look in the mirror to determine where you need to improve?
DeCosta: "We try to be as critical as possible regarding our team. There’s only one team that’s good enough to not criticize themselves, and that’s the team that wins the Super Bowl. We’re not where we want to be as a team. We recognize that and we’re trying to get better. And this is one of the steps, the Senior Bowl is an important step. We’ll be in Baltimore next week and have our personnel meeting where we talk about our team. And we’ll continue to evaluate and make decisions and have our meetings. Then, we get ready for the scouting combine.”
Where does this team need to get better? Is wide receiver a major need after last season?
DeCosta: "Well, I think we can get better at every position. That’s our challenge in terms of getting that done in both scouting and in coaching is really working to improve the talent level on our team. Sure, you’d like to get faster at receiver. You’d like to get bigger. You’d like to get more physical on the offensive line, better athletes. You want to get better at every position. Corner-wise we’d like to get bigger and faster guys who can make plays. The biggest thing with us is finding guys who can make plays for us late in the fourth quarter, guys who can finish games, guys who are playmakers. That’s definitely going to be a priority for us moving forward.”
How disappointing was it for the running game to take a step backward?
DeCosta: "The running game, that’s Ravens style football. We’ve always been a running team. We had some different things happen this year on the offensive line, some guys playing different positions and some injuries that hurt us. We’ve always been a big, physical team. John Harbaugh and his coaching staff have done an amazing job continuing to cultivate that image both on offense and defense. We’re a team that really I think we play our best football late in the year in cold weather. We’re always preaching that we run the ball well. We’re hoping to get back to that next year.”
Do you need help at inside linebacker next to Ray Lewis or do you think you’re in good shape with Jameel McClain, Tavares Gooden and Dannell Ellerbe?
DeCosta “Sure, there’s no question. We’ve got some young guys in Tavares and Jameel and Ellerbe, They all took positive steps this year. We’re excited about those guys. We really want to see them take the next step next year and become good players. We’ll continue to evaluate that position."
With players like Jake Locker and Von Miller in this game, how deep is the pool of players at this game?
DeCosta: "Well, they’re a lot of good players. I think Steve Hale, who organizes this game, does a great job getting good players to come to this game. And this is really the best event for scouting every year in terms of the best all-star game talent. To be able to come down here and see players like Von Miller, Jake Locker, Christian Ballard, Ryan Kerrigan, some of the better players, to see them down here on this stage practicing hard every day is really an important part of the process."
We’ve seen Christian Ballard, the Iowa defensive lineman, dominate the one-on-one drills. What’s you take on him?
DeCosta: "He’s a big guy with some athletic ability. He’s played tackle and he’s played end. He can rush the passer. He’s from one of the better football programs in the country. They have a very well coached program at Iowa. He’s a quality individual and I think his best football is ahead of him.”
Do you see Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan projecting well as a 3-4 outside linebacker?
DeCosta: "He led the country this year in tackles for loss and also forced fumbles. He is one of these guys who gives you some versatility either in a 4-3 or a 3-4. He’s a multi-position player, great motor. He’s definitely a guy who bears watching."
What do you think of the wide receivers you’ve been watching this week?
DeCosta: "They come in all shapes and sizes Some of them are polished possession guys, and then you’ve got some guys who are more explosive down the field. Greg Salas [Hawaii] has had a couple of good days. Very, very good route runner, excellent hands, he’s a strong guy, he’s been impressive. I think Leonard Hankerson from Miami is another big, physical guy who snatches the football and make plays. Definitely some guys this year that could help a team.”
Former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan’s son, Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, has had a big week. What have you seen from him?
DeCosta: "He’s a big guy and again another guy who projects to either scheme, 3-4 or 4-3. He’s done a really nice job this week pass rushing and getting to the quarterback. He’s also a very stout run defender. He’s got that two gap potential 3-4 teams are going to like.”
Miami defensive end Allen Bailey definitely passes the eyeball test. Is he someone that’s of interest to a lot of teams?
DeCosta: "He’s got great tools: size and speed and athletic ability. He’s definitely a guy that can play in multi schemes. He can play inside and outside. He can play tackle or end in a 4-3 and can probably play end for you in a 3-4. Intriguing guy, lots of ability. This is a big week for him.”
With Marc Bulger a free agent, are you in the market for a young quarterback to develop as a backup behind Joe Flacco?
DeCosta: “There’s always that chance with Marc being an unrestricted free agent. There’s always that chance we could bring somebody in. There’s some very good players. Jake Locker is a guy that obviously will get picked pretty high. Colin Kaepernick is an intriguing guy from Nevada, good size, athletic ability, real mobile guy. Ricky Stanzi played in a pro style offense at Iowa, very good numbers this year, very few mistakes, lots of touchdown passes, very few mistakes. Andy Dalton from TCU again had a great year this year for an undefeated team. Real smart guy, good arm, good prospect."
Does the importance of the draft grow this year considering the offseason is expected to be different?
DeCosta: "It’s a critical draft for a lot of different reasons. I honestly think we’re close to being one of the better teams in the league. And we need some more players to put us over the hump. We’ve seen what teams can do with players, Pittsburgh with a Mike Wallace, and a Maurkice Pouncey making an impact for them. New England with some of their great draft picks that they made, whether it’s guys like Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez.
"All those guys can really change your team for the better. We’re trying to do that this year. I think our scouts and coaches recognize the importance of the draft this year. We’re spending a lot of time trying to get the draft board lined up properly, correctly. Hopefully, we can take great players on draft day.”
Will you stay for the game or are you headed back to Baltimore?
DeCosta: "We’ll continue to evaluate these guys and then we’ll go back in the office on Friday and watch the practice tapes and game tape next week. We’ll start spending some more time on our own team. The process starts. This is the best time of year for us, scouts and coaches, in terms of building our team."
How important are the interviews with the players? Are they too programmed by their agents?
DeCosta: "Yeah, I think the interviewing process is really important for the Baltimore Ravens and how we operate. Getting to know these kids up close, having a chance to talk to these guys to get a sense for their intelligence, football background, family background, family situation and family structure just to get a sense for the personality of the kids, we feel like that’s very important. I think our scouts and coaches do an outstanding job of getting a sense for the DNA of these guys, what makes these guys ticks. That’s something that in professional football that’s very important."
You’ve been up for general manager positions in the past, but haven’t pursued them. Did anyone talk to you about a job this year and what’s your feeling about continuing to stay in Baltimore on a long-term basis?
DeCosta: "Nothing has really changed on that end. You’re fortunate in this profession if you get a chance to work in a great organization. With great people, what more could you ask for? I think the Ravens, we’ve been together now, Ozzie Newsome, Pat Moriarty and myself, we were able to bring George Kokinis back this year which I think is really good for the organization, and you’ve got guys like Vince Newsome, Chad Alexander and Joe Hortiz.
"We’ve all been together for a long time. We speak the same language. It’s exciting to have that kind of camaraderie We think it’s a special place, and we’re not where we want to be as a football team We recognize that, but we think we have a chance to get there. It’s been a fun ride and we want to finish this project off."