It was not on purpose that the greatest players in modern Ravens history—Ray Lewis (an inside linebacker), Ed Reed (a safety), Marshall Yanda (an interior offensive lineman) and Justin Tucker (a kicker)—are players at non-premium positions. But it might be significant.
While some of you might have missed it, the Ravens seem to be fleecing the NFL again. For almost a decade, their game of choice was mid-round picks and the compensatory draft formula. No team has dominated the middle rounds like the Ravens under former GM Ozzie Newsome and now Eric DeCosta. This year, the Ravens had six fourth-round picks, the most fourth-round selections by any team in NFL history. Starting in 2013, a look at their draft pick history shows a distinct widening in the middle rounds simply by understanding the value of letting certain players walk in free agency and what it would cost them in capital to sign new players. These picks have turned into Brandon Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Nick Boyle, Za’Darius Smith, Tavon Young, Matt Judon, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr. and so on. You get the picture. Baltimore is paying less for better talent than any team in professional football.
But as other teams caught on to their strategy, it looks as though the Ravens began searching for another roster building advantage: constructing a team around the best players at non-premium positions.
As we head into the 2022 season, the Ravens are getting roasted for opting not to draft a wide receiver in this year’s NFL draft and trading away their best one, Hollywood Brown, to the Cardinals.
What did they acquire? Among others, a safety (Kyle Hamilton), a center (Tyler Linderbaum), two tight ends (Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely) and a fourth-round punter, Jordan Stout, who some believe was one of the best special teams prospects to hit the draft in a decade. All traditionally undervalued positions.
Here’s why this is a big deal: the Ravens are sitting out the NFL’s absurd and cutthroat bidding war for non-quarterback premium players. The cornerback market is now $21 million per year after the Jaire Alexander deal. This offseason, the Ravens signed the best safety in free agency, Marcus Williams, for $14 million. They drafted Hamilton, believed to be one of the best coverage players in the draft, with the No. 14 overall pick. Hamilton dropped, principally, because he played safety and the position is viewed as unworthy of a top draft selection. In October, he was being discussed as a top-three pick before the senseless truisms of the old football guard took hold.
The wide receiver market is reaching real estate-type absurdity. Kudos to the Raiders’s Hunter Renfrow for signing a deal worth more than $16 million per season, but is he worth more than three times what the Patriots’s Kendrick Bourne is worth? Is he worth almost six times what the Saints’s Tre’Quan Smith is worth? So, Baltimore said (and has been saying): give me all the tight ends. What is the point of destroying your salary cap if Lamar Jackson is better at throwing to tight ends anyway, and the way you move the ball is more conducive to a tight end-centric passing game? Also, you guessed it, the top tight end salary in the NFL is half—half!—of the top wide receiver salary. Tight ends are infinitely more valuable to the total composition of a team, especially now with the prevalence of outside zone systems that require hybrid blocking and receiving players who can manipulate defenses based on their pre-snap shifting and positioning. And, as Baltimore seemed to recognize a few years ago, they can still contribute to a wildly efficient offense. Who cares who you are throwing the ball to as long as they’re moving it forward?
The strategy seems radical by football standards but is, essentially, a reverse engineering of our common understanding. By stockpiling elite players at undervalued positions, the Ravens are seemingly bolstering their talent at premium positions by proxy. Mark Andrews (107 receptions, 1,361 yards, nine TDs in 2021) is one of the best tight ends in football. Opponents come into games treating him like a No. 1 wide receiver. What is the difference, then, to the Ravens’ actual No. 1 wide receiver, Rashod Bateman? Is he not seeing the same benefit in some way as he would if the Ravens had a legitimate No. 2 or 1A-type receiver? Defenses are still allocating more of their total assets toward defending one player. That means fewer assets to defend Bateman.
If the Ravens uncork one of their tight-end-heavy formations and Bateman is the only “true” receiver on the field, he may doubly benefit. Defenses will have to sit in a heavier base formation to counter the overwhelming possibility of a run. The Vikings, who have Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen on the field together, can manipulate defenses one way. The Ravens are just choosing a different option that will cost a hell of a lot less in the long run.
The same can be said for drafting Iowa’s Linderbaum in the first round. Centers rarely get taken this high in the draft but Linderbaum was viewed as an elite talent. If he turns out to be a top-five player at the position, what is the difference between Linderbaum making the players around him better and a stalwart tackle making the players around him better? About $10 million, which is the gap between top-tier center pay in the NFL and top-tier tackle pay. There is a reason the Colts did not trip all over themselves to find an elite tackle this offseason. They have Quentin Nelson, one of the best guards of the modern NFL era. Nelson turns a replacement-level left tackle into an average or above-average player. Linderbaum could, eventually, turn average guards into good guards. Good guards can help tackles, too.
From a wider perspective, would you rather have the best safety prospect in the draft, or the fifth-best wide receiver at No. 14? Who has a better chance of working out and identifiably making the team better?
For some time, we’ve been waiting for a signature Moneyball moment in professional football, and each time I look at the Ravens’ roster, the scene from the movie where Brad Pitt lauds on-base percentage to a room of dusty scouts comes to mind. What is the difference between a walk and a single? What, then, is the difference between a 10-yard catch from a receiver or a 10-yard catch from a third-string tight end? What is the difference between shutting down an opposing wide receiver with some elite, $25 million per year corner or minimizing his impact with varied schemes that present different challenges via a series of talented players who have different strengths? We may be living Moneyball right now, the true and recognizable moment when a blend of football and analytics took hold and won.
The Ravens have not cared how things are supposed to look for years now. Greg Roman, their offensive coordinator, has orchestrated a top-five offense in terms of rushing net yards per attempt every year since 2015. His teams may never have featured a receiver your friends coveted on their fantasy football team, but the Ravens have made the playoffs in three of the past four years, and would have made it last year had they not been blown up by a wave of injuries. Since 2018, they are the third-most efficient total offense in football, behind only the Chiefs and the Packers. They are seventh in defensive efficiency over that same time period.
Doubling down on this strategy is an investment that will pay off over time. Investing monolith, Warren Buffett famously advised to be “fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” The Raiders, Dolphins, Jaguars, Cardinals, Lions and Commanders changed the scope of the receiver market overnight through their impulsive longing for receiver talent. The Ravens seemed to thank them for it, picking up the potential core of a championship team in the process.
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