An Exclusive With Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta
I had the pleasure of chatting with Baltimore Ravens EVP and General Manager Eric DeCosta recently and we discussed various Ravens-related topics. In Part I of a five-part series, DeCosta discusses the inside linebacker position, the growth of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young and the developmental processes of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and why DeCosta believes that both are prepared to deliver on the potential that persuaded the Ravens to draft both linebackers back in 2017.
Listening to separate interviews with John and Steve, they seem to share a quiet confidence about the ILB tandem of Onwuasor and Young. Do you share that confidence and if so tell us what you saw in 2018 that invites such confidence?
ED: Well I think both guys have shown us that they can play winning football last year. Both are very good athletes and we love their passion for the game. They both had outstanding off seasons and both guys move very well in space. The game of football has changed over the years. Being able to run, bend your knees and cover running backs and tight ends – that’s a really, really important part of the job.
Both guys have a knack for making plays, both guys have played well on special teams. We’re excited about the group. I think Wink Martindale and Mike MacDonald; those guys are outstanding football coaches and those guys are going to do an outstanding job of getting our linebackers ready to play games on Sundays.
With the departures of CJ Mosley and Eric Weddle, the Ravens lost some leadership as well as the primary candidates to wear the green dot. We’ve been hearing that Onwuasor is the most likely candidate to wear it in 2019. Talk about him embracing this new responsibility.
ED: Well I think first of all, we’re not sure who’s going to wear the green dot. We’ve certainly had different people wearing the green dot throughout practices, preseason games and regular season games. I think that’s going to be determined at some point. Peanut is a guy who has had some experience doing that in the past. Whoever it is, they’ll be prepared. That’s something that happens over time with practice, with repetition. And until you’ve worn a green dot you haven’t worn a green dot.
We’ll have somebody ready to go. Anytime you lose valuable leadership on defense there’s going to be a learning curve. But we’re confident that we have the right guys on defense to pick up the slack and put us in position to effectively run the defense.
Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams haven’t performed as expected. What do you think has slowed the development for each and how can they get back on track in 2019?
We’re very excited about both guys and what we’ve seen over the years – players who get a chance to play, if they’re the right type of guys, they’ll improve and develop very quickly. We’ve seen that happen on defense over the years with a lot of players in our scheme. Both guys have had very, very good off seasons and watching those guys work over the last couple of weeks, I truly believe that each of those guys will be productive football players this year.
In Tyus, you’ve got a really, really good athlete who can do multiple things. He can play in space, he can rush the passer. He’s got a very good skill set for our defense in that he can play multiple positions.
In Timmy Williams you’ve got more of a traditional edge, pass-rush type of guy. He’s shown us a good first step with the ability to bend and close on the edge.
We’re excited about both guys. We think their future is now and they’re going to hopefully become the players we thought when we drafted them.
The signing Earl Thomas was a bit of a surprise – a splash signing that the Ravens typically aren’t part of. What qualities drew you to Thomas and how do you see the tandem of Thomas and Jefferson working together?
ED: Earl first of all, is a guy that we scouted at length coming out of the draft when he came out of Texas. Just a sensational defensive football player who really fits the mold of the traditional Baltimore Raven-type player. He’s a playmaker, aggressive personality, fast, alpha leadership on the field.
We played against him several times since he’s been in the league and I’ve always been impressed with him – what he brings to the table in terms of secondary play but also his total defensive play. In terms of looking for players who we thought could impact our defense this year after we lost C.J. and Suggs, Za’Darius and Eric, I think Earl just stood out as the one guy that could come in and not just pick up some slack, but pick up a lot of slack.
He has a tremendous appetite for the game of football – his passion is quite evident. He’s a playmaker on the back end with ball skills; he’s a good support player; he’s a blitzer. And he’s a guy that other guys can follow. So, we’re very excited about what he brings to the table. We got a chance to watch him last week compete a little bit and the one thing that we saw last week is his speed and his burst and his ability to accelerate to the football.
We’re very, very excited about that. Most really good defenses have a player like him and we think he fits us very well.
How do you expect the tandem of Thomas and Tony Jefferson to play off each other?
Earl is a guy who can do a lot of different things. He can play multiple roles. Tony can play multiple roles as well…and I thought Eric [Weddle] could do that as well. There are so many different types of players. Eric Weddle is probably one of my favorite players that we’ve ever had here just from a personality perspective, his leadership ability – everything that he brought to the table in terms of a leader on the field and off the field, in the locker room and then there’s his ability as a football player.
So, with Earl coming in, obviously no two players are exactly alike but having seen Earl, we love what he can bring on the back end as a high safety. His ability to play multiple spots and his ability to play very, very fast as a guy who can do a lot of different things for you. We just think he complements our defense extremely well.
Tony is another guy that can be used in different roles. Both guys have great leadership ability as vocal guys. They can get people lined up and also lead by example on the field. We love our backend. Personally, I believe that we have one of the deepest secondaries in football and hopefully that helps us to win some football games this year.
Mark Ingram has over 7,600 yards to go with 55 TDs during his 8 seasons in the league. He is 29 years old, with plenty of tread. What most attracted you to Mark?
We think he’s a really good scheme fit for our offense. Some of the stuff that he did in New Orleans with their offense, really kind of fits in what we do. Again, a guy that we knew about. We scouted him coming out and he was a player that we really liked. And what’s interesting about Mark is that for a guy that is established in the league he’s a good fit for us because he hasn’t beaten his body up with a tremendous amount of carries.
He’s been part of a rotation. His best football has been probably over the last 4 or 5 years. He’s a guy that before Alvin Kamara went to New Orleans, he was very much used in the passing game. He’s got great feel as a route runner and that’s a very underappreciated part of his game. He runs hard, has vision, he’s been a productive player and for the most part he’s been durable guy. And also, a player that we knew a lot about.
His Alabama ties – this is a guy that felt like we knew inside and out personality wise. We also had a chance to vet him using players like Willie Snead and Ben Watson who know Mark extremely well. It was clear to us when we brought him in – a great fit personality wise. We’ve had success with unrestricted free agents and oftentimes a big part of that is personality and we saw that with guys like Brandon Carr and Eric Weddle. If they’ve got the right kind of mentality they’re a great fit for us. We think Mark is that type of guy.
ED: Those things take place over a period of weeks and months and some of those discussions really started, even going back as far as April before the draft – early April, talking to the agents, kind of gauging their interest levels. We try to find guys that have veteran leadership, guys that have a history of good play, intriguing guys. What do they bring to the table? How do they fit? Personality. We had a chance to really vet those players – get to know their personalities.
And then look at the value. How much value could the bring to the team? What’s their upside? What is the cost going to be and then in each case, with all three of those guys – obviously we knew what Pernell brings to the table. We love what he did last year although he had just a small sample size of about 250 plays or so. We love what he did last year for Washington. We love his personality. He knows our scheme, he knows this building and that was an easy move for us to make.
In terms of Shane Ray, he’s a guy that has had a checkered career with injuries, but again, a guy that we scouted out at length when he came out and another skill set where this guy can play as an outside linebacker, as a Sam backer – he can drop, he can cover, he can rush the passer. He’s got a good motor. We think he fits us very well.
And Michael Floyd is a guy that is probably one of the better blocking receivers in the game. He’s had some success over the years. He’s also had some adversity that he’s overcome. We’ve got a relationship with him through one of our assistant coaches who coached him in high school and so we know a lot about Michael. We felt like, again, it was a very low risk signing. All three of these guys were low risk signings with high upside.
We’re excited about it and as you alluded to, all three of these guys were good signings because they don’t count against the comp pick formula. So, we had a chance to bring some veterans in was very attractive to us.
During his conference call with PSL holders, Steve Bisciotti had an interesting comment about upgrading the offensive line. He said that you guys would not pursue just an average player to help bolster the interior line – that you’d prefer to stick with the guys you have instead of adding an average player.
ED: I think that stems from the idea that we’ve allocated resources in the last few years in young players that we’re excited about and we want to see what that can do. So, in looking at a guy like Bradley Bozeman or Jermaine Eluemunor or [Greg] Senat or Ben Powers or players like that – Orlando Brown. Even though we haven’t used a lot of high draft capital on offensive linemen, we feel like we’ve got a nice long nucleus of quality backup guys that could ascend.
We’ve seen over the years some guys – Ricky Wagner, Ryan Jensen, those guys didn’t start as rookies. Those guys didn’t even start as second-year players in some cases but they became players. With offensive linemen, a lot of times what we see is it takes these guys a year or two and they become pretty damn good players.
So, unless we had the chance to bring in an immediate impact offensive lineman we would rather use that capital on other players and give the chance to these young guys to see who of this pack of guys really does emerge and becomes a quality player for us.
What did you see from Ben Powers at the Senior Bowl that enticed you to make him your second fourth round pick?
ED: A physical guy; tough mentality; grinder; a very durable player [who] played on an excellent offensive line. Excellent technician; good finisher. We love the program. We know a lot about Ben because of his relationship with Orlando. Just a good, young player. Kind of gritty, kind of a physical guy. We’re excited about what he brings in the short-term but also in the long-term.
He kind of fits our mentality as a person and a player. And we’re just excited to see what he does as he gets thrown into the mix.
Another player from Oklahoma was your first overall pick in 2019, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, has been compared to DeSean Jackson. Is that a fair comparison and if not, who might he compare more favorably to?
ED: I’m always hesitant to compare anybody to a really, really good NFL player. I’m not a huge comparison guy. But what we saw with Marquise was a game breaker – a player that could do things in space and also down the field as a vertical wideout. Most receivers typically get pigeon-holed as a vertical guy or being a run-after-catch, underneath, inside player. Despite Marquise’s smaller stature, he’s a guy that has shown the ability to make plays down the field and he’s also shown the ability to catch the ball underneath, take a reverse, take a screen – whatever it is, he’s shown the ability and flair to make big plays.
For two years in a row, we’re very excited, he was a dynamic player to watch on tape. One of the more fun guys that we’ve seen over the last couple of years with the ball in his hand. He’s a really consistent player. For a smaller receiver, what we love is his ability to consistently catch the football, which is a really important part of the position, obviously.
So, we felt like we were getting a very complete player and a guy that would make us better and would allow us to keep a balanced field and not allow the field to be shifted towards the quarterback.
Steve recently said that he sees no difference within the organization as it relates to you and Ozzie – that things from his perspective are exactly the same. Talk about Steve’s role and contributions when it comes to personnel decisions.
ED: The thing about Steve is he’s a great communicator. He’s a guy that can look at a lot of different situations from a different angle or through a different lens. He’s a great sounding board for me and a great sounding board for Ozzie and John, Dick – we really do have a great working relationship, all of us, where we can talk about decisions and look at things in a lot of different ways and come up with the best strategy that fits for the Ravens. One that fits for me and for John.
So, I think in Steve’s case, he’s got great common sense and he’s got a great, simple view of things. He’s not an owner that’s going to meddle in any respect. But he’s someone that I can call and ask an opinion about things. He’s got a great feel for the economics of the game and salary cap. He’s got a great feel for personnel and the draft and for trading. He’s also a great negotiator. So, he’s really able to provide me with a couple different ways to attack a problem, whether it’s with the team or an agent – questions to ask, maybe a strategy to use for different things.
He’s also great in terms of assessing people, interviewing prospects. I’ve gone to him with things in the past with a specific player in mind – what questions might you ask or how can we get the answer to that, that we’re looking for in terms of a specific issue.
Steve is a great part of our partnership that we have at the executive level. He’s very valuable to me and everybody else. He’s not somebody that is going to make any demands or anything like that. He’s not involved in the minutiae of personnel. He’s not scouting or evaluating players. But he’s someone that has had a high degree of success in the business world using a lot of different skills that he has and we would be foolish not to rely on him at times.
ED: Well he’s got an interesting skill set. He’s an exciting young player. He’s a tough, tough player to defend against and we’re just kind of scratching the surface as to the potential for the offense. He’s shown leadership. He’s got an infectious personality that other people want to follow. He’s got a great work ethic and we think he’s going to get better. We think the sky is the limit with Lamar. We’ve put some interesting players around him and we think that it’s going to be a tough matchup for defenses around the league.
We’re kind of doing things a little bit different, quite honestly, then most of the other teams and that’s exciting to all of us.
There’s pressure to win in the NFL. Jobs are at stake. But as a GM you also have to keep a watchful eye on the team’s future. Talk about the challenges of winning today but building a team for sustained success.
ED: That’s a really big part of the job as GM and we try to that. How can we build the best team in the short term but have the most potential to be the best team in the long term? We do that in a variety of ways, obviously being smart with the salary cap – it’s a big part of that. Acquiring as many draft picks every single year that we can, with an eye towards comp picks, being smart with the signings that we’re going to make; managing the roster – looking at which players can help us win in the short term versus which players should we really dedicate signing before [they sign] somewhere else, so they can become good long-term prospects; how much money do we have to spend; how much money do we want to carry into next year’s salary cap; how do we craft deals that allow us to obtain players but also keep them over the length of their contract using various structures and mechanisms to help us do that.
We try to eliminate as much dead cap money as possible and try to be really smart organizationally; having the flexibility to acquire players if we can via trade or other mechanisms if they’re available while making sure that we have the money to do that so that we can be opportunistic if situations arise.
So, it’s a big puzzle. This has been a really important part of focus for me this year – trying to build the best team that we can to play in September of 2019 but also having the best team possible in 2021. I think that being aggressive in terms of signing young talent a year early if possible. And also, nailing as many draft picks as possible on good players so that you can afford to let high valued talent on your team – if you simply can’t re-sign them, you can let that talent leave and then replace via the draft.
There’s really no right way to do it. It’s a gut thing. Some of it is being objective with the salary cap, it’s nuance, it’s decision making, and time to do what you can to build the best team possible.
Some players, despite impressive stats, focus more on the mistakes they made on the field. I see you as an executive who embraces a similar approach to your job. Talk about your organizational self-scouting. How brutally honest are you all with each other when evaluating a season?
ED: There’s nobody who puts more pressure on themselves than me. Having been part of this organization since 1996, I personally feel a tremendous responsibility to the fans to succeed and build the best team – to build a team that the fans can be proud of every single year. That’s a motivating factor for me every single day. That’s what keeps me up at night. A big part of that is self-scouting. Looking at decisions we’ve made – good decisions, bad decisions and trying to be as brutally honest as we can.
That also means that I better challenge my scouts and staff to be the best that they can be. We understand that as good as we think we may be there’s always a lot more room to be even better. We’re fortunate that we found an owner that really does preach accountability and transparency and honesty and that permeates throughout the entire organization.
John [Harbaugh] and I will have good discussions about the future team and decisions that we make – good decisions, bad decisions. We’re able to include the scouts and coaches and it becomes a really big, important dialogue when we think about what is best for the team moving forward. And we’re able to really chart out some strategies to help us be the best we can be.
A big part of that is being honest with yourself and questioning decisions that you make, studying decisions that you make, trying to learn from your mistakes so that you don’t repeat them moving forward.
You are a competitor. You’re on record more than once saying that you hate to lose. Winning matters. But other than winning a championship, what satisfies you most as the GM & Exec VP of the Baltimore Ravens?
ED: They only thing that really satisfies me is winning. But you know I want this organization to be a destination organization for employees and players alike. I want us to be the standard for sports teams. I want this brand to be recognized throughout the world.
I’m very proud of what my predecessors have done in terms of making the Baltimore Ravens a household name. In football but also in sports across the world. I want that to continue. I want our employees to think that they’ve got the best jobs in the United States – in the world.
Personally, when I come through the security gate out front, every single day I’m tremendously excited to come into work. Hopefully our players and other employees feel the same way. I want this place to be the best at everything we do. Whether it’s food in the cafeteria, whether it’s the fields, the uniforms, whether it’s the building itself, the stadium experience, there’s no reason why the Baltimore Ravens can’t be the best.