Eisenberg: Why Hitting on Draft Picks Is More Important Than Ever

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One doesn't expect startling revelations at the Ravens' pre-draft press conference, but if you tuned in Monday, you heard a startlingly succinct summary of the franchise's operational philosophy.

One sentence spoke volumes.

If you've wanted to hear the Ravens explain why they obsessively accumulate compensatory draft picks and trade back to acquire more picks instead of trading up to acquire bigger-name prospects, here was your moment.

It came after a questioner asked General Manager Eric DeCosta for his reaction to the New York Post anointing the Ravens as the NFL's "best drafting team" over the past five years.

"I think we've probably had the most picks over that span," DeCosta replied.

That actually said it all, although his further deconstruction helped.

As the GM explained, the Ravens view the draft as "a luck-driven process," which it certainly is. There have been years when Day 2 was more fruitful for the Ravens than Day 1, or when Day 3 was the most fruitful of all. You can't explain it, but the unpredictability drives the Ravens' core belief that ALL picks are valuable.

"Yeah, we've had some success; we've also had some big misses," DeCosta said. "We've had a lot of picks, and I think that's the number one indicator to see teams who have success in the draft, is how many chances they have to draft good players."

The philosophy wouldn't work as well if the Ravens didn't also employ discerning scouts or coaches and trainers who can turn raw material into starters. "The developmental machine," DeCosta called the latter.

But it all starts with seeing the value in Day 2 and Day 3 picks as well as the Day 1 headline-makers, because if you're any good at this, they all turn into players, sometimes with surprising results.

The Ravens' success is a matter of record, and at the risk of being overly dramatic, a lot is riding on their ability to maintain that success in the coming years.

"Draft picks will be more important than ever," DeCosta said.

Why? The Ravens and Lamar Jackson are negotiating a new deal, which is going to be big, really big. Whenever he signs – and in my view, it's not a question of if, only when – he'll start gobbling up a lot more of the salary cap.

"We understand that if we do sign a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, that's going to change the way we've operated the last couple of years," DeCosta said Monday.

There'll be less room for veteran free agents, who cost more, and that increases the importance of having young contributors, i.e., draft picks who can take on important roles at lower prices.

The good news is it seems Jackson is well aware of what lies ahead, and in that sense, an amenable partner. When DeCosta said Monday that Jackson is "a very patient guy," it was hard not to discern that he is willing to wait on signing his new deal to give the Ravens more time to try to sign free agents.

Remember, when several of their more recent defensive line picks didn't pan out, they had to trade for Calais Campbell and sign Derek Wolfe, who combined for a $13 million cap hit in 2020, according to Spotrac. They had the cap room partly because Jackson is still on his rookie deal, but the clock is ticking toward the time when they might not be so flexible.

The 2020 offense is a nice example of how their philosophy is supposed to work. The Ravens' top running back, J.K. Dobbins, and their top pass catchers, Hollywood Brown and Mark Andrews, were all still on their rookie contracts. Safety is also a nice example; in 2020, the Ravens started a pair of former sixth-round picks, Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, emphasizing the importance of ALL picks.

It's just a more affordable way to proceed, which is soon going to really matter to the Ravens.

"We'll have to be probably a little bit more careful about which players we sign and which players we don't sign," DeCosta said. "We may lose some good, young players."

That'll be tough. But how do you replace good, young players? If you're the Ravens, you just accumulate picks and draft more.

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