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Passing the Torch in Baltimore

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Speaking to the media for the first time since the heartbreaking end of the 2017 season, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti announced earlier this month that longtime Assistant GM Eric DeCosta would take over for GM Ozzie Newsome after the 2018 season.

While it has long been known that DeCosta would eventually be promoted, the question of when Newsome would retire has loomed over the organization for the past few years. Three straight seasons without a playoff appearance has led some to wonder if Newsome would be forced out in the near future. But according to Bisciotti, the timing of this move was actually set a few years ago.

“We had talked after the ’13 season and it was about Eric, and Ozzie agreed to redo his contract for a five-year extension, in which he case, he would turn over the 53 [man roster] to Eric, and that’s a year away,” Bisciotti said.

Ozzie is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player, and certainly deserving as a GM as well, but there have been growing concerns among the fan base for years that the game has passed him by.

While some of the criticism is probably overblown, it’s hard not to argue that it’s time for the Ravens to make a change.

Let’s start by looking at the draft. The idea that Ozzie has totally lost his touch in this area is definitely exaggerated. The Ravens remain among the league’s best at finding talent later in the draft.

“When you look at the later rounds, I don’t think anybody has done as much as we have.” Bisciotti said. “You look at the last couple years of getting guys like Willie Henry and [Matt] Judon and Alex Lewis.” He would also go on to mention Ricky Wagner, John Urschel, and Ryan Jensen, all of whom were relatively successful later-round picks.

He’s right. And he didn’t even mention Tavon Young, who had an outstanding rookie season before getting injured in training camp in 2017, and should return as the Ravens’ top slot corner next year.

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But even when you find talent in the later rounds, it’s usually complementary talent. Brandon Williams is the exception, not the rule. And while Ozzie deserves credit for players like Wagner, Henry, and Young, those guys simply are not franchise-changing pieces.

Ozzie made his mark as a GM both early in his career and early in the draft. The homegrown players that have defined the Ravens since the move from Cleveland are listed below:

Jonathan Ogden

Ray Lewis

Peter Boulware

Chris McAlister

Jamal Lewis

Todd Heap

Ed Reed

Terrell Suggs

Haloti Ngata

Marshal Yanda

Joe Flacco

Ray Rice

Of these 12 names, 10 were 1st round draft picks. Rice and Yanda were 2nd and 3rd round picks, respectively.

Those players made the majority of their impact in the years 2000-2012. During that time, the ravens went 126 – 82 (.606), made the playoffs 9 of 13 years, and won 4 division championships and 2 Super Bowls (h/t Pro Football Reference).

The Ravens’ 1st and 2nd round picks from 2013-2017 are listed in order below:

Courtney Upshaw

Kelechi Osemele

Matt Elam

Arthur Brown

C.J. Mosley

Timmy Jernigan

Breshad Perriman

Maxx Williams

Ronnie Stanley

Kamalei Correa

Marlon Humphrey

Tyus Bowser

Tim Williams

(h/t Pro Football Reference)

Of these 12 names, only 6 (Upshaw, Osemele, Mosley, Jernigan, Stanley, and Humphrey) have proven to even be solid NFL players, and 3 of them aren’t even Ravens anymore. Elam, Brown, Perriman, Williams, and Correa can all be considered busts to this point. The jury is still out on Bowser and Williams due to lack of opportunity in their rookie season.

Since the 2013 season, the Ravens are 40-40 (.500), have made the playoffs in 1 of 5 years, have won zero division titles, and have not advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs (h/t Pro Football Reference).

Simply put, playoff teams are built in the early rounds of the draft, and the Ravens have failed in that area in recent years.

Now back to the idea that the game has passed Ozzie by. The Ravens GM has taken heat in recent years for focusing too many resources on the defensive side of the ball, while neglecting the offense. This is only fair to a certain extent. The Seahawks, Eagles, Vikings, and Jaguars have all proven in recent years that defensive-dominant teams can still be successful in today’s NFL.

However, there is no doubt that the game has evolved to favor offenses. Quarterbacks are protected like never before, DBs have almost no window to hit receivers without getting flagged, and defensive pass interference calls have been rising in recent years.

Whether you blame it on Flacco, John Harbaugh, the string of offensive coordinators, the front office, or all of the above, there is no denying that the Ravens have not evolved with the game.

Personnel-wise, it is not possible to win in today’s NFL without playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. The Eagles, Vikings, and Jaguars all managed to overcome mediocre talent at the quarterback position not only because of their defenses, but also because they surrounded those quarterbacks with top-level playmakers.

Even in Ozzie’s heyday, the Ravens’ Achilles heel in the draft was always wide receivers. Baltimore has been absolutely incapable of drafting and developing wide receivers under Ozzie, and that’s why the greatest receivers in team history (Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith) were brought in via either trade or free agency.

Meanwhile, some teams have had no problem adjusting to the new era of NFL football.

The Patriots were ahead of the curve when they picked up Randy Moss in 2007 and went on to set all sorts of offensive records. The Steelers were not far behind, as the non-QB faces of Pittsburgh’s franchise changed from Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

Both the Patriots and the Steelers had previously been known as defensive-dominant teams.

Not only have the Ravens not successfully addressed the offense from a personnel perspective, but they have also failed schematically. While watching the Ravens’ offense, it doesn’t take long to realize that Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is trapped in 1997, running a bland version of the West Coast offense with a quarterback that is clearly not a fit for his scheme.

So if things are so broken, why simply move on to DeCosta? Why not clean house and start from scratch?

Let’s not overreact here.

While the Ravens have at times been guilty of promoting continuity for continuity’s sake (Harbaugh’s decision to keep Mornhinweg comes to mind), stability is still extremely valuable when it can be logically applied. There is a reason DeCosta gets calls every year for GM openings around the league, as he is still regarded as one of the top talent evaluators in the NFL.

This is a perfect move because it offers the perfect balance of continuity and evolution. DeCosta has been working under Ozzie for 22 years, and you can bet he can tell you better than anyone what is working and what is not. That experience, combined with the fact that he is younger and likely more able to adapt with the times, makes him the perfect candidate to replace Ozzie.

Speaking about DeCosta, Bisciotti said “I’ve seen the way he goes about the business. I’ve seen the way he’s embraced technology and analytics, and I like working with him.”

The note about technology and analytics is very encouraging, and seems to be a hint from the Ravens’ owner that DeCosta will take a more progressive approach to evaluating talent and building a team.

Despite the shortcomings of recent years, Ozzie Newsome is clearly one of the greatest front office executives in NFL history. That list of impeccable 1st round picks was not only meant to serve as a comparison to recent draft misses, but also as a testament to just how good the man was for so long.

All those years of success, the playoff runs, historic defenses, and 2 Super Bowls; that’s what Ozzie will be remembered for in Baltimore.

As a Ravens fan, there was nothing more comforting for all those years than saying “In Ozzie we trust.”

Eric DeCosta has some massive shoes to fill, but Ravens fans should be confident that there is no one better for the job than him.

AFC

Bills’ Matt Milano Out for Season

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The Buffalo Bills will be without linebacker Matt Milano for the remainder of the season after Milano had surgery for a broken fibula on Monday.

Milano, 24, was a standout for the Bills’ defense during their upset victory over the Minnesota Vikings which earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Milano’s spot on the roster is likely to be filled by Deon Lacey.

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Raiders Fire Reggie McKenzie

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The Oakland Raiders have fired general manager Reggie McKenzie, according to NFL Network insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden dodged questions regarding McKenzie’s job status following Sunday’s game; 

“I don’t have any comment on that,” Gruden said, according to Michael Gehlken of the Review-Journal. “We’re going to build this team back. I know that. We’re going to bring the Raiders back.”

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AFC

Raiders’ Jon Feliciano Done For Season

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The Oakland Raiders will be without left guard Jon Feliciano who suffered a calk injury that will likely shut him down for the remainder of the season, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal’s Michael Gehlken.

Feliciano suffered the injury during Oakland’s surprise win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Feliciano, 26, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and is a strong candidate to be re-signed by the rebuilding Raiders.

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