DeCosta Sets Own Course with 2021 Draft

Ravens Draft Central DeCosta Sets Own Course with 2021 Draft

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“When Anquan came out in the draft, he was the subject of a lot of discussion in our war room. Not too many times do you get a chance to recover from a mistake. I think I made a mistake in that draft, to worry more about measurables than about the football player. And what Anquan is, is a football player.”

Ozzie Newsome in 2010, after trading for Anquan Boldin.

I always thought this quote was a strange one.

Boldin came out in the 2003 NFL Draft, but in 2010 you got, with the quote above, a public admission of the mistake, after Ozzie traded for Boldin to right that wrong as he saw it. He also admitted the reason for the mistake – he was too concerned about the measurables. The Ravens aren’t often a team that, like a moth to a flame, chase a 40-yard dash time. Albeit, with one glaring positional exception it seemed: Wide Receiver.

I thought the quote was strange given that he must have realized this mistake before he traded for Boldin and his own long-term track record at the position. But even if we accept that the mistake was only accounted for in 2010, the following decade was still littered with speedster misadventures at the receiver position.

So now we come to the 2021 NFL Draft and Eric DeCosta’s latest attempt at performing a follow up aria to Ozzie’s years of success.

Newsome drafted two Hall of Famers in his first draft and built a Super Bowl winner over the next three, not to mention adding the Ravens’ new league-altering, unicorn of a franchise Quarterback in his last.

What will you be performing for us Mr DeCosta? Miles Boykin and Broderick Washington – thank you, next!

We are now a week removed from waking up to a new first-round Wide Receiver in Baltimore and when it comes to Wide Receivers in the first round in Baltimore’s drafting history, one of these things is not like the others.

Yes, Rashod Bateman has plenty of speed, but he was exactly the type of receiver I had gotten used to ignoring as a potential future Raven, hardened over years of seeing Baltimore ignore crafty, savvy guys, who groundbreakingly used their skill as receivers to get open rather than hoping to simply burn past the opposition.

I mention all this about DeCosta’s follow-up to Ozzie, because his first two drafts as GM had been a gentle evolution from the team’s past approach. He was taking more swings at the receiver position, for sure, but it wasn’t far removed from what we had seen before in terms of profile, both at receiver and many other positions. Yet, we had heard that EDC would have a slightly different approach to Ozzie. It hadn’t quite yet manifested itself significantly in his picks.

This draft felt like a seminal moment, a far more significant changing of the guard as DeCosta really signaled the arrival of his era at the helm of this franchise with two first-round picks that could not have been more different to Ozzie’s approach.

On the face of it, at least.

In Bateman, we saw a receiver selected who wasn’t known for his size and speed but more his body control at the catch point, the savvy in his route-running; things the Ravens usually don’t seem to notice. In Oweh, the Ravens got an all-potential, developmental pass-rusher who barely scratched the surface of the sack production the team usually looks for and is more explosive and athletically gifted than perhaps any defensive front selection Baltimore has ever made.

DeCosta certainly charted his own path with both of his first-round selections this year, and it sure seems that this is more than ever, his team now. But, if we look closely enough, we can see some of the more important hallmarks of Ozzie’s regime.

First, Bateman. We hear all the time from former GMs, sometimes I think seemingly bitter about their firings, that the relationship between a front office and a coaching staff is paramount for success. The Ravens seem to have had this down for years. We heard in their pre-draft press conference, in detail, about their process, which has endured now through over two decades of drafting. About how the coaches get involved in the process and work seamlessly with the scouts. And we were reminded about the closeness of Harbaugh and DeCosta’s personal relationship.

It should have come as no surprise then, that we also heard in the post-draft press conference about how influential new coaches Keith Williams and Tee Martin were in their Wide Receiver selections this year. We could have anticipated a slight change in approach to the position given these men likely bringing an entirely fresh perspective to the table.

Secondly, Odafe Oweh. There are many studies out there to assess the importance of explosion and athletic ability in the art of rushing the passer. Yet the Ravens have often forsaken this potential in the early portion of the draft, in favor of mid-round pass rushers who have outstanding college production but not the physical gifts that can make for a dominant edge rusher at the next level.

This year Oweh was, on the face of it, the polar opposite of that. But in being blinded by Oweh’s lack of production, we failed to see how he does fit the Ravens – as an already-elite run defender. Oweh is still learning his craft as a pass-rusher, an in-depth watch of him will tell you that he isn’t yet able to string together a full-game plan for beating his man consistently and is still adding moves to his repertoire, not yet using them effectively in combination.

But for the little snaps he had as a pass-rusher, he had even fewer as a run defender, yet still exhibits most everything the Ravens would look for from a dominant edge-setter. The Ravens said in their pre-draft presser, how important running the ball and stopping the run are to them – of course their first selection of a high-ceiling pass rush prospect so high in the draft, would come with a ready-made ability to do the thing that the Ravens require of all their defenders.

We were all so busy talking about DeCosta’s defense of his current crop of receivers that we failed to see the blatant misdirection he was pulling. There were clues that told us about these first-round selections, we just missed them.

You can see from any in-depth study of the Ravens draft picks that they have never been a team that sticks to red lines around athleticism or production. They’ve had clear tendencies over the years, but they’ve departed from those at times. What we saw in this draft was a reminder that there are other things more important to them. Their culture, like a productive working relationship between their coaches and their scouts, is more likely to produce a pick than is how fast a Wide Receiver runs the 40-yard dash.

But I said that this draft was a departure for the Ravens, and, for me, it was. It did feel like a seminal moment for DeCosta. It felt like he had crystalized what he felt was most important from the years he learned under Ozzie – what the most crucial ingredients were to the success of the past approach and applied them to his tenure concretely. That’s something a custodian does – someone who has the grace to understand that they are building on a legacy – entrusted with the great responsibility of carefully evolving an ultimately successful approach.

And with this sure ground beneath him, like any good custodian, he now has won the space and built the confidence to add his own colors to the painting. Explosion in a pass rusher, catch-point skills in a receiver, but more than all these small, nuanced changes to an evaluation philosophy, a commitment to bringing to Baltimore, socially conscious, community-serving, outstanding young men, that fit the Calais-Campbell-culture of this team.

On top of Bateman and Oweh, Baltimore added:

Ben Cleveland – My love of Cleveland as a prospect was tempered by the fact that I wasn’t sure Guard was seen as a need, even with a move of Bradley Bozeman to Center. It felt like the safer draft move, might have been to draft one of the elite Center prospects and keep Bozeman at Guard. I was very happy to see the Ravens draft Cleveland though, who is a great fit in the scheme. He actually has good feet and athleticism for his size, which is behemothic. He will destroy whole sides of a defensive line with his down-blocking and brings the hammer, in general, in the run game.

It may change Baltimore’s scheme slightly as he will likely pull less than Bozeman, but this felt more like a need for Bozeman, rather than a necessity of the scheme. I think there will be some work needed in pass protection, specifically with his punch, which was why, along with the potentially limited scheme fit, he dropped to the third round.

Brandon Stephens – I’m sure the pick of Stephens elicited the most audible collective “who” from Ravens fans on draft night. He escaped the hype of the media pre-draft day and went severely under the radar. I did not evaluate him pre-draft but post-draft, I’ve watched a little of his tape. As you probably know by now, Stephens is a late conversion to DB from running back. I think this in itself speaks to his character – when challenged by others to move positions and ultimately schools, to play a new position to give him a chance of making it to the league, he wanted it that badly that he did it.

He’s raw as a DB – some mirroring, technique issues as well taking bad angles as a tackler, but the move was late in his college career and there is clearly still significant ceiling to unlock. What you are getting is a tough, physical and athletic guy, who hits hard and plays the ball with outstanding instincts and competitiveness. The move to Safety that the Ravens have mooted makes complete sense to me off the tape I’ve watched – he seemed underconfident and a little messy technique-wise going backwards, but coming forwards, downhill to lay hits and to play the ball – he looked very good.

Tylan Wallace – Another wide receiver! I wasn’t as high as others coming into the draft on Wallace, but at 131, I would have found him hard to pass up too. This was great value. At Oklahoma State, Wallace was an outstanding catch-point receiver, showing elite body control and competitiveness to put away contested catches. He’s a better route runner than I think he was given credit for, with a good understanding of the nuance necessary to get open at the next level and a good ability to choke off his acceleration at the top of his routes.

My concern with Wallace coming into the league, is his ability to beat press. He wasn’t pressed much, but when he was, he didn’t have a varied enough release package and he struggled to get on top of the defensive back. He has the competitive attitude you need to get better at it, so hopefully this was just lack of opportunity and reps.

Shaun Wade – I could write about Wade for days. One of the most intriguing evaluations in the draft, he came into this past season as a heralded prospect. When I watched him this time last year, I made notes regarding Wade being a very good nickel CB, where he played in 2019 for Ohio State, but thought that I would need to see him play outside consistently to be comfortable taking him early in a draft. For me, this wasn’t a lazy opinion based on lack of evidence; it just looked like everything worked for him in short areas – he had good size, elite movement skills in confined spaces, and toughness – everything you need out of a good slot corner. On the occasions in 2019 when he was asked to do more in greater space, he did struggle somewhat.

I didn’t enjoy being proved right because I really liked him as a player, but if you’d told me back then that the Ravens could nab Wade at 160th overall, I would have been turning the card in very quickly. He did not have a great season at outside corner last year, as I suspected, but given what we know now about the injuries and off-field difficulties he was facing, I’m not sure this disqualifies him from playing there just yet. Though I think the Ravens will start him in the slot and he’ll be great insurance if Tavon Young can’t go a full year again, not to mention being able to use him strategically on bigger receivers running the middle of the field.

Daelin Hayes – A guy I pegged as a potential future Raven pre-draft but based off his tape, not based on my analysis of the Ravens’ tendencies – usually mid-round edge rusher picks are reserved for those guys with high sack totals. Hayes never had that production that the Ravens look for, but what he does have is remarkable consistency as an edge-setter. He was a run stuffing machine for the number one run stuffing defense in the nation last year at Notre Dame. His dominant edge and unselfish play was a big reason for this.

As a pass rusher he still needs some development. He did not get the heavy dose of pass rushing snaps that others in this class received, so while he is a smart player and can clearly put together a pass rush plan, he didn’t get great experience in executing that plan at length over full games and battles with Offensive Tackles. His go-to rush was the speed rip as he does have an excellent second and third step as a pass-rusher, but there was little finish to it, and he was just slightly off with some of the small details in his pass rush. I think the Ravens will look to develop him into a very valuable early-down role player, as he was in South Bend, while concurrently trying to go to work on some of his physical tools to see if they can’t make a sack artist of him yet.

Ben Mason – I know there was a lot of frustration with this pick, but I absolutely loved it. Was it a little early? Maybe. Was it frustrating that the Ravens didn’t address Right Tackle depth? Yes. But I’m not willing to ding Mason for that. He’s basically a smaller version of Pat Ricard. The Ravens probably knew that eight guys weren’t going to make the roster this year out of this class – I wonder whether Mason was a guy they thought they had no chance of getting to sign with them as a UDFA so they thought they would get him in now by picking him and stash him to take over Pat Ricard’s mantle in a year.

They let a very good but very different full-back, in Kyle Juszczyk, walk and I think they might do the same with Project Pat, much to my dismay. But Mason is a capable, albeit far smaller, replacement for Ricard. Mason likely gives you a little more than Ricard does as a running and receiving threat but a little less as a blocker but that’s no slight on Mason, who is physical and seeks out contact like any good full-back should, with multiple examples of him seeking and destroying linebackers. There’s a small write-up of him on my Twitter if you want a little more detail, but as a former full-back and general full-backing connoisseur, I am very happy with the selection. 

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About James Ogden

A long-time Ravens fan and writer, James was an early starter in journalism as Editor of his school and college newspapers, with his most enjoyable time spent on the sports desks. He didn’t pursue a media career, getting a “real” job instead, but he finds every opportunity to do what he loves. You’ll find him most passionate about the intersection of data analysis, player evaluation and team-building, writing mostly about the Draft and player evaluation from a Ravens perspective. As a player of the game, to put his performance in scouting lingo, he was a core special teams guy only. More from James Ogden
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