Ravens seem unlikely to buy into “one player away” trade-up mindset

April 09, 2020 | Luke Jones

Believing you’re “one player away” can be a dangerous mindset for a team unless talking about needing a franchise quarterback, which is all that matters when lacking one.

Yes, making the big splash in free agency or even the rare blockbuster trade at the deadline provides buzz and instant gratification, but it’s too often a delusion of grandeur. The same danger applies this time of year when teams — and their fans — fall in love with a particular prospect or a specific position of need in the first round of the draft. The truth is that the impact of even the best non-quarterbacks often won’t justify the lucrative cost that can be required to move up so many spots to draft the player.

The idea of aggressively “going for it” just isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Ask the Los Angeles Rams as they come off a non-playoff year, lost some key players due to being tight against the salary cap this offseason, and aren’t scheduled to have another first-round pick until 2022.

With seven selections in the first 150 picks of this year’s draft and nine choices overall, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was asked the seemingly annual question about trading up from the 28th overall pick in the first round during a Thursday conference call. It’s no secret the Ravens want to address inside linebacker, edge defender, wide receiver, and the interior offensive line, but DeCosta also regards this as a deep draft in which multiple picks will be more valuable.

Baltimore certainly isn’t in need of a quarterback after trading back into the first round two years ago to draft Lamar Jackson, who became the first man in franchise history to be named league MVP last season. When you’re picking as late as the Ravens, moving up more than a few spots in the first round won’t come cheap.

“I understand people love the idea of trading up to get a guy, but in general, historically, if you look at all those trade-ups, it’s 50-50,” DeCosta said. “You’ve got to look at what you give up to get a guy and those picks and how those picks turn out. People want to point to the Julio Jones trade that the Falcons made [in 2011], and that was an unbelievable job by them getting a guy like that.

“But in general, trading up is dangerous. It’s a little bit risky. I like to have 10, 12, 14 picks in every draft, all things being equal. But if there’s an elite player available, we’d be foolish not to consider that.”

It’s easy to get caught up in some idea of the Ravens being “one player away,” but they already have the makings of a Super Bowl-caliber team after going 14-2 and dominating in the regular season last year. Rather than overextending themselves trading draft capital to select a “star” — who’s never guaranteed to actually be one, mind you — the Ravens are more likely to benefit from a goal of coming away with two or three solid-to-good starters and a few useful role players using their deeper collection of picks that offer a wider margin for error. One of those players could always turn out to be the real star anyway, which is what makes the draft so much fun.

Such a deep draft haul would be critical beyond just 2020 as the clock ticks on Jackson’s rookie deal and fellow All-Pro selections Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey are also in line for market-setting contract extensions. Yes, DeCosta wants to put the Ravens in the best possible position for 2020, but the draft is about maximizing value and adding as much quality, low-cost talent as you can for the years ahead, especially when the salary cap will become a greater concern.

The Ravens have enjoyed much draft success over the last 25 years, but they’ve also had downswings and average stretches — the years immediately following Super Bowl XLVII come to mind — as DeCosta has described picking players as more art than science in the past. We know a good number of the prospects nearly every pundit is currently lauding as future NFL standouts won’t be for a variety of reasons.

“The draft in and of itself, there’s definitely a luck component,” DeCosta said. “You may be surprised to hear me say that, but I do believe that. I think a lot of different studies would say that — a lot of different papers that I’ve read on the draft and various things. From that standpoint, you’re always better off having more picks than less picks. If you trade up, you give up picks, so you better get a guy that’s going to be a difference-maker.”

Of course, this isn’t to say DeCosta won’t plot a move up the draft board, especially a more moderate climb in which the Ravens see a player really standing out from the others available in terms of perceived value. There’s always that balance between risk aversion and being bold, between quality and quantity. You don’t want to be Mike Ditka trading an entire draft for Ricky Williams, but that doesn’t mean swapping your first-round pick for Day 2 and 3 selections is the answer either.

There are exceptions, of course, but paying too much markup to move up for a non-elite player at a position of great depth in this draft (wide receiver) or at a spot that simply doesn’t offer as much positional value (inside linebacker) just wouldn’t seem wise.

“These guys in the first round, there’s a wide variety of grades,” DeCosta said. “A guy like [Ohio State defensive end] Chase Young, if he starts to slip in the draft and we thought we might be able to get him, obviously yes, try to trade up and get him because of our grades on Chase Young. Every player is totally different.”

And few seem to fit the description that would prompt the Ravens to trade away their collection of picks.