Building Around Lamar Jackson Gives Eric DeCosta a Fun Challenge

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Eric DeCosta grew up admiring the Dallas Cowboys’ Tom Landry, Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm because they did things differently than everybody else back in the day.

Now DeCosta has his chance to zig while everybody else zags, and he’s relishing the opportunity.

With Lamar Jackson now the centerpiece of the Ravens’ offense, DeCosta’s charge is to build around the young quarterback’s dynamic skillset. While reporters in Wednesday’s press conference referred to it as a “challenge,” DeCosta lit up.

“It’s fun, I think,” he said. “We’ve got a quarterback with a unique skillset. So how best can we make him better? What types of players are we looking for?”

DeCosta said he will get a lot of input from the Ravens’ coaches, but ultimately, DeCosta will make the final calls on which players come to Baltimore to help Jackson take the offense to another level.

“This is a really, really fun, exciting offseason, because we get a chance to look at other teams, and maybe even have the chance to draft some players or add some players that maybe other teams don’t like as much as we do because we’re doing something different,” DeCosta said. “So, we may be able to find or exploit that situation a little bit.”

Most teams build around a pocket quarterback and a pass-heavy offense. The Ravens will go against the grain, building around a strong run game and Jackson’s game-breaking ability as a runner.

As DeCosta said, the Ravens want balance – the ability to run and pass the ball effectively – but there’s no doubt that they will maximize what Jackson does best. That will allow Baltimore to construct the team differently and put a higher emphasis on certain attributes complimentary players may have.

DeCosta didn’t shed much light on exactly what kind of players suit Jackson, but there were some clues. When talking about wide receivers, for example, he said blocking, “for us is important. It’s really important.”

“We also want big, physical, tough, aggressive, nasty, mean offensive linemen who can protect Lamar and help open up some running holes,” DeCosta said. “We want tight ends who can make plays. We want running backs who can take the tough yard; we want running backs who can break big gainers.”

Adding pieces to the Ravens' running game and offensive line make obvious sense in a run-heavy offense. Baltimore hasn't drafted a running back in the first two rounds since Ray Rice in 2008. Bolstering the interior of the Ravens' offensive line, both at guard and center, could also be big missions this offseason.

Baltimore drafted a pair of tight ends last year, but may need to bring back another blocker with Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams both set to hit free agency. At wide receiver, the Ravens will want to add players who are good blockers, as DeCosta said, but Baltimore also must help Jackson continue to develop as a passer, and dangerous wide receivers certainly help.

There are still questions about whether Jackson and the Ravens’ run-heavy attack can be a long-term winning formula. Can Baltimore reach the Super Bowl going all-in with that model?

No quarterback ran the ball more times than Jackson, and the rookie didn’t become a starter until midseason. Baltimore won six of its next seven games before the offense fell flat in a playoff loss to the Chargers.

“I think football is very cyclical,” DeCosta said. “For years, you couldn't just win a Super Bowl with a really strong defense. I think we did that back in 2000.”

The other part of the equation that excites DeCosta is the financial aspect. Since 2013, the Ravens have been tied to Joe Flacco’s then record-setting deal. That has made it tougher to keep and add other pieces. It's no coincidence that the Ravens went to the playoffs every year from 2008-2012, then twice from 2013-2018.

Now, with Flacco set to play elsewhere next season and Jackson on his rookie contract for (likely) four more years, DeCosta has more flexibility and room to be aggressive in free agency and with trades. DeCosta said he wants to put the Ravens in a “really good salary cap situation now and also moving forward” so they can keep more of their ascending players and strike when they can get another player they covet.

A big chunk of that will come by getting out from underneath Flacco’s contract. The Ravens would save $10.5 million this year by parting ways, but still have a $16 million dead cap hit, per Spotrac. By 2021 at the latest, the Ravens shouldn’t owe Flacco any more money.

Other veterans from last year’s team could also be salary-cap casualties this offseason, which would free up even more money to invest around Jackson. DeCosta doesn’t want to blow up the team – particularly his top-ranked defense, where many of those contracts lie – but he has a lot of different options.

“I think that we would love to keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore,” DeCosta said. “That's hard to do at times when you have a really, really good quarterback who's making a lot of money, and you have less cap room. It is tougher for you to keep your roster intact.”

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