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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Ravens’ 2024 draft will set the tone for the future | COMMENTARY


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Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has been on a roll in recent NFL drafts, and he needs to continue that trend in 2024.

When the Ravens signed middle linebacker Roquan Smith to a five-year, $100 million contract in January 2023 and then quarterback Lamar Jackson to a five-year, $260 million deal a few months later, it set a precedent.

The Ravens need to be prepared to win with some rookies or other cheap talent as the yearly salaries of these two players escalate. DeCosta said that he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that the window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl closed after the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.

The NFL salary cap will be $255.4 million in 2024, an increase of $30.6 million from a year ago. That will help the Ravens, but also the 31 other NFL teams, and will create more bidding wars for top free agents such as defensive tackle Justin Madubuike — a likely candidate for the franchise tag — linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Geno Stone.

“It was nice to see that number. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to just open up the books and go shopping [for free agents],” DeCosta said of the new salary cap. “That’s not really the Ravens’ way, but to have that buffer, so to speak, and to give us a little bit more flexibility along the way. … It helps us this year, but it also helps us in the coming years as we project what we think that salary cap is going to be moving out in years ’25 and ’26, as well.

“I think we’re excited about the potential that we have to be a good team this year, and we think that we’ll have some flexibility to remain good in the coming years.”

Well, now he has to prove it. The beginning of another opportunity unofficially started this week at the NFL’s annual scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. It’s always intriguing to watch the so-called experts grade drafts every year, but true evaluations of each class should be given after four years.

When you look back at DeCosta’s work, he has been impressive, especially when the team’s win-loss record is considered.

Of his five classes, only the first in 2019 and the third in 2021 are subject to scrutiny, and the 2021 group might still pan out. The 2019 class consisted of Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown in the first round, Louisiana Tech outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and Notre Dame receiver Myles Boykin in the third, and Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill and Oklahoma guard Ben Powers in the fourth.

Only Hill remains with the team. Brown was eventually traded for a first-round pick, Boykin was released and Powers left for the Denver Broncos in free agency. Ferguson died from the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine in Baltimore on June 21, 2022.

The 2021 class still has potential with wide receiver Rashod Bateman and outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, both first-round picks, and guard Ben Cleveland, a third-round selection. All three need to have breakout seasons. Cornerback Brandon Stephens, also a third-round pick in 2021, had a career year in 2023 with 74 tackles, 11 passes defended and two interceptions in 16 starts.

DeCosta’s other drafts, though, have been successful with early round picks such as Queen, running back J.K. Dobbins and Madubuike in 2020, and safety Kyle Hamilton and center Tyler Linderbaum in 2022.

The key, though, has been the success of late-round picks who have become starters or provided depth, such as defensive lineman Broderick Washington and Stone in 2020, or the 2022 class that included offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, cornerbacks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams, punter Jordan Stout, and tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar. All were taken in the fourth round or later.

Those players, combined with starters such as Jackson and Smith, help form the nucleus of the team. The Ravens, though, will have at least 20 free agents this offseason. It’s time to reload.

Older players, such as guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will likely command big money, and so will players in their primes, such as outside linebacker Malik Harrison and running back Gus Edwards.

DeCosta knows this is a big draft that could set the tone for the future. A lot of teams have gone through this situation before, especially when they sign franchise-caliber quarterbacks such as Jackson. The Ravens had a similar situation when they made Joe Flacco the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL after signing him to a six-year, $120.6 million contract in March 2013.

Unfortunately, the Ravens went to the playoffs only once, in 2014, during the next five years. It isn’t coincidental that they had first-round busts during that time such as Florida safety Matt Elam (2013) and Central Florida receiver Breshad Perriman (2015) as well as second-round failures in Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown (2013), Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams (2015), Boise State outside linebacker Kamalei Correa (2016) and Houston outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (2017).

The Ravens don’t want to duplicate history. A top priority in the draft should be selecting quality offensive linemen such as Georgia’s Amarius Mims or Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton, or replacing Zeitler or Simpson with players such as Kansas State’s Cooper Beebe or Michigan’s Zak Zinter.

“It’s always going to be a priority; we have to have a big, strong, imposing offensive line. So, we’ll continue to build that out,” DeCosta said. “Obviously, this year, we’re going to have, probably, some change on the offensive line in different ways. It remains to be seen exactly what that looks like, [but] we will have a plan. Fortunately, this is a deep draft class, as well, so we’ll have a lot of different options in different rounds [and] players that we like at the offensive line position — at tackle and also guard.

“You’ve got to stay young, but you’ve also got to have [a] great veteran presence, as well, [on] your offensive line and every other position. So, it’s really a balance.”

They will always need cornerbacks, such as Georgia’s Kamari Lassiter or Missouri’s Ennis Rakestraw Jr., and edge rushers, such as Alabama’s Dallas Turner or Florida State’s Jared Verse. They’ll also be in the market for a tall, fast receiver on the outside who can stretch defenses, as well as a running back.

DeCosta has a lot of work in front of him. But since his first season as general manager, he has helped compile a 56-27 regular-season record. That’s pretty impressive.

The Ravens nearly got to the Super Bowl last year. Well, almost.

Now is the time to start another opportunity.

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