OWINGS MILLS, Md.—Four Ravens thoughts:
1. What a weird look. Think how many stalwarts are missing. Quarterback Joe Flacco. Pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. Linebackers C.J. Mosley and ZaDarius Smith. Safety Eric Weddle (admittedly a late-arriver, but a really good contributor recently). Change is good, usually. Revolution … that’ll take a big adjustment.
2. The DeCosta takeover. I’ve always been interested by Baltimore’s ability to do things a different way. The Ravens were leaders in accumulating compensatory draft picks, and the league followed. The Ravens figured out that offensive linemen in spread systems were tortured acclimating to the NFL, so they made hay with mid-round Big Ten, pro-style linemen. Now they’ve got an analytics-savvy GM, Eric DeCosta, taking over for the legendary Ozzie Newsome, and he’s great friends with the progressive Astros team that was hired to rebuild the Orioles—GM Mike Elias and assistant GM Sig Mejdal. “They question everything, and I love that,” DeCosta said. This offseason, the Ravens put an ad on social media for an analytics hire. In baseball, analytics is the new wave. The NFL is still trying to figure it out. “We got hundreds, I mean hundreds, of applications,” DeCosta said. The Ravens hired a 22-year-old woman who will try to make sense of the new data—including GPS tracking of players in practices and games. DeCosta is so protective of the Ravens’ analytics plans that when I asked him how many analytics hires he had this year, he said, “More than one.” And about the number of analytics employees in the organization? “Less than 10.” DeCosta doesn’t think analytics provides a magic formula, but that’s not what he wants. He wants a small edge. A tiny edge. “We’re looking for 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent advantages,” he said. “There’s no 50 percent edge anymore.”
3. Lamar Jackson looks like more of a thrower than runner. It’s just one practice that I saw, but new quarterback Lamar Jackson stuck in and around the pocket Friday. He spent the offseason doing what smart quarterbacks do—adjusting to the passing portion of his team’s playbook. He was a 58 percent passer last year, but his 170-147 pass-run ratio in 2018 should be far more lopsided in favor of the pass in 2019. “I’m not afraid of anything in this offense, what they ask me to do,” he said. “Pressure busts pipes, but I don’t feel pressure. I just feel opportunity.”
4. The defense it is a-changin’. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale led the second-stingiest unit last year (287 points allowed) but now the Ravens are relying on imports like Earl Thomas to buttress the D. What’s interesting about Thomas’ role after arriving from Seattle is that he’ll be asked to be orchestrator and play-caller, the way Ed Reed was here, more than he was in Seattle. “Excited about it,” Thomas said. “New place, new coast, new energy.” The Ravens need Thomas, 30, to be the playmaker and enforcer he was in the Legion of Doom.