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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — “We’re on the clock,” Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said to the 36 scouts, coaches, analytics staffers and club officials in the Baltimore draft room at 12:16 p.m. Saturday. Day three, round four of the 2022 NFL Draft was four picks deep, with the 110th overall selection upcoming. “We’ll wait till there’s three minutes left—just to make sure.”
Round four. The golden round for Baltimore in an odd draft season. No team in draft history has had as many picks in a round as the six the Ravens had in this one, and it was by design. Because a slew of draft prospects stayed in school a year longer than projected after the Covid-wracked 2020 college season, the talent in the ’22 draft would be deeper than normal, even if the first round or so was just okay. “We thought this pool would be rich and fertile,” said DeCosta, 51, in his office before the round began. He wore a sweatshirt that read: ANALYZE MORE. NEVER GUESS. “We wanted as many third- and fourth-round picks as possible.”
One fourth-rounder was Baltimore’s pick, three came in trades, two came as Compensatory picks for lost free agents. Consciously accumulated for just this strange year when, to the Ravens, the fourth round had extra value. Would DeCosta be right? Would this jackpot of depth pay off in a rebound from an 8-9 season? No one can know today, but a long-haul franchise like Baltimore had used this round to pick Dennis Pitta (114th), Kyle Juszczyk (130th) and Za’Darius Smith (122nd) in recent years.
As the clock wound down for the 110th pick, no team called trying to trade for the pick. With three minutes left, DeCosta picked up the phone and called mountainous Minnesota tackle Daniel Faalele, an Aussie who didn’t play football till age 16.
“You’re gonna be a Baltimore Raven,” DeCosta said. “We love big guys like you. You’ve had a remarkable voyage, and this is just the beginning.” Coach John Harbaugh and team president Sashi Brown took turns welcoming the 384-pound Faalele.
“All right guys,” DeCosta said to the room. “We’re off and running.”
The next pick, 119th overall, was nine slots away, and there was an Alabama corner to procure. Then 128, 130, 139 and 141. Five more chances to get pieces of a 53-man puzzle. Of the 29 prospects they were choosing from in this area of the draft, the Ravens would focus on an injured corner, the Academic Heisman winner, a punter to replace aging Sam Koch. They’d get gut-punched by their arch-rivals for a player they wanted—and needed. They’d get nine phone calls, three from the Jaguars, about trades, and they’d make none.
The trades had been made. Now it was time to cash in the picks. These six men, these six decisions, would be big factors for the future of the Ravens, good or bad.
Not sure what was weirder about the Vegas draft, but this definitely was not a staid affair. An illusionist kicked off day two by extricating himself from a straitjacket while dangling and spinning over the crowd. Michael Irvin kissed Donny Osmond. YouTuber Dr. DisRespect announced the Niners’ third-round pick, and I have no idea why. “I wish Mayock was here,” Rich Eisen said when Blue Man Group invaded the NFL Network set and leaf-blew streamers in the middle of the 127th pick. (Mike Mayock lived for Vegasy things like that.) You want weird, though? Cole Strange, first-round pick, Patriots. Viva Los Belichick.
Atypical draft. First 70 picks: one quarterback, 14 receivers.
Atypical story. I’ve got to make you want to read about a team’s fourth round. Here’s the pitch: The Ravens have made the playoffs 13 times and won two Super Bowls since 2000, and they’ve done it by zigging when others zag. They’ve had more Compensatory Picks than any team; they’re fine with letting big-money players walk, because they figure they can find good (and cheaper) replacements. After the abridged 2020 college season and the runup to the ’21 draft, they saw a market inefficiency coming—more good players in the ’22 middle class—and so they let go two big free-agents (Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue) for Comp Picks, and they made two 2021 trades that netted fourth-round picks, and one more trade in round one, moving from 23 to 25 with Buffalo to pick up the sixth fourth-round pick.
I was in the Ravens’ draft room for the fourth round. What I found interesting was the calm, even when the Steelers threw a stunning changeup at them moments before the Ravens were going to address a need. Halfway through my 100 minutes in the room, I wrote in my notebook, They’ve done this before—no surprises.
Part of what’s interesting to me is the kind of new knowledge the team seeks. DeCosta has formed a bond with the former NASA engineer and ex-Astros analytics guru Sig Mejdal, now the Orioles assistant GM. “Eric’s a football expert,” Mejdal said at Camden Yards on Friday, “but he’s also a guy who continually searches for ways to improve.”
In the previous 15 drafts, I’d categorize 24 of the Ravens’ 76 picks in rounds three through five as successes—meaning they became starting players for Baltimore for a time. From guard Marshal Yanda in the third round of 2007 to safety Brandon Stephens (third round, 2021), the Ravens have drafted, developed and started their middle class. In this draft, as of Saturday morning, Baltimore had about 31 of its top 115 players left on the board. An hour before starting round four, DeCosta laid out his top priority: “I’d like to get the corner from Alabama [Jalyn Armour-Davis] if we can. He’s good. He’d help us.”
Entering round four, in order, the Ravens prioritized three players: Faalele, Armour-Davis and Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar. But it wasn’t that easy. DeCosta was torn entering the room. Armour-Davis was more of a need, and even though the grade on Faalele was higher, the GM felt a run at cornerback coming.
DeCosta believes that being a general manager is not simply about reading the grades and picking by them. There has to be a feel involved. They prioritized Faalele because he had a slightly higher grade; he and North Carolina QB Sam Howell were the highest-graded position players for Baltimore at the start of round four. (The Ravens don’t need a quarterback, so they wouldn’t have taken Howell.) For DeCosta, Armour-Davis was key because you can’t have enough corners, and he was their best corner left.
After Denver picked at 116, owner Steve Bisciotti, a huge draftnik, wondered what DeCosta’s next move was if Armour-Davis was gone. Another target for Baltimore was Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar. “Eric,” Bisciotti said, “Kolar if you lose Armor-Davis? He’s the Academic Heisman guy.”
“Yeah,” DeCosta said. “Kolar wrote me a note, a hand-written note, after we met with him [at the combine], thanking me. Good kid. Good player.”
117: Jets take Michael Clemons, defensive end, Texas A&M.
“Guys,” DeCosta said to the room, “we’re taking the Alabama corner if he’s there.”
118: Vikings take Akayleb Evans, cornerback, Missouri.
119: Jalyn Armour-Davis, cornerback, Alabama.
Applause in the room. “Jalyn,” DeCosta said over the phone after introducing himself, “how much do you know about the Ravens?” He quizzed him on Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey, from Alabama, and about ex-Crimson Tide tight end Ozzie Newsome. Then DeCosta handed the phone to Newsome. “Jalyn?” Newsome said. “Roll Tide.”
The list of Ravens’ favorites dwindled. At 122 and 123, the Raiders and Chargers took two of Baltimore’s preferred backs, Zamir White and Isaiah Spiller. But then four straight players who weren’t Raven targets went. Vegas called, wanting the 128th pick. Nope. The Ravens wanted Kolar, he of the 3.99 GPA in mechanical engineering and the 64-catch season in Ames last fall.
Bisciotti was excited. “Finally,” the owner said, “I’ll have someone to converse with.”
Not a bad line. The room broke up.
On the live speaker from the draft, a tinny voice called out: “At 127, the Patriots take running back Pierre Strong Jr., South Dakota State.”
“Yesssss,” DeCosta said.
128: Charlie Kolar, tight end, Iowa State.
On the phone, DeCosta told Kolar, “You’re going to have the chance to play with Mark Andrews, and to catch passes from Lamar Jackson. We’re excited.” Harbaugh took the phone. “Hey Charlie! We’ve been holding our breath here!”
Kolar, in fact, was a good example of the player who went back to school after the Covid season. “I thought long and hard about coming out in 2021,” Kolar said Sunday. “But I had sports hernia surgery [in early 2021], and obviously when you’re getting ready for the NFL you want to put your best foot forward. Theoretically, even if I’d been a third-round pick last year versus a fourth-round pick this year—and there’s no guarantee of that, obviously—I knew I’d be a better player if I stayed in school one more year. To me, the draft is just the beginning of the journey. Staying in helped me.”
Now a short turnaround to the next pick.
130: Jordan Stout, punter, Penn State.
The Ravens needed a speed receiver to replace Hollywood Brown, who they traded to Arizona during Thursday’s first round. But they had a one-punter prospect class (“Stout was the only one we would have drafted,” DeCosta said) with Koch nearing his end in Baltimore. So Stout was the pick.
DeCosta allows his special-teams coach, Randy Brown, to lead analysis on kickers and punters. Brown loved Stout. Koch has had a 16-year run in Baltimore. Justin Tucker is entering his 11th season as kicker. It’s hard to know when it’s smart to take a punter; the Bucs took the second of the draft just three picks later. But DeCosta knew the expiration date was coming due on Koch, knew he needed a punter, and knew if he lost out on the chance to get a 10-year punter he’d be kicking himself.
“We think you’re one of the best punters to come out in years,” DeCosta told Stout on the phone.
He’d better be.
Now the calls started coming for the last two fourth-rounders, 139th and 141st overall. Five teams called in 20 minutes. One NFC team offered two sixth-round picks for either 139 or 141. “I don’t think so,” DeCosta told one of the GMs who called. “We’re gonna pick.”
137: Patriots take Bailey Zappe, quarterback Western Kentucky.
A middle-round receiver, Calvin Austin III of Memphis, a smurfy guy who runs a 4.32 40, was Baltimore’s target here. Guess who else runs a 4.32? Hollywood Brown. Though Austin’s a small guy, he was durable at Memphis, playing 49 games in four years and averaging 16.3 yards per catch. Baltimore’s not a deep-throwing team—thus Brown’s frustration, leading to his trade request, and the trade to Arizona—but the Ravens could use speed depth.
Austin wasn’t a must-have. But he was the next target. He was Baltimore’s guy.
Then, over the tinny speaker, news that the Steeler were picking wide receiver Calvin Austin, Memphis.
“Gotta be kidding me,” someone blurted out as the Ravens began to process it.
Ravens on the clock … 4:40 4:35 … DeCosta had to think now. He had open trade offers with Kansas City and Jacksonville, and he could pull the trigger on either. He didn’t love his options here. But his expression didn’t change. Harbaugh’s expression didn’t change, nor did Newsome’s. These things happen in the draft. They pondered alternatives. They had two linebackers and one slower receiver with good grades left, but didn’t love any of them.
There was a tight end rated very close to Kolar, Isaiah Likely of Coastal Carolina, one of the best offensive tight ends in the college game last year. The Ravens thought he might be able to do some receiver things—lining up in the slot and outside—as well as playing inline tight end.
“How about Likely?” Harbaugh said to offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “Find a spot for him?” Roman liked him.
With about a minute left on the clock, the decision was made.
139: Isaiah Likely, tight end, Coastal Carolina.
“Isaiah, hi. Eric DeCosta, GM of the Baltimore Ravens,” the GM said, giving him the news. “You’re from Boston, huh? You a Celtics fan?”
Later, I asked DeCosta about losing Austin. DeCosta said, “That’s the draft.”
“We gambled on the punter, and we’re glad we got him,” DeCosta said. “To us, Stout was the only one we’d have taken. These are the kinds of decisions you make every year in the draft. You never get everyone you want.”
There was one other part of the equation, a part of the job DeCosta didn’t want to discuss openly. A good general manager can sniff around his area of the draft and see if a player he likes a lot is in danger of being picked by another team. And here, the Bucs picking 133rd and the Bengals picking 136th were sniffing around punters. He heard one of them liked Stout. “If you have a chance to fix a position for 10 years with a punter about to be 40, you’ve got to consider that strongly,” DeCosta said. Thus the punter at 130.
141: Damarion Williams, cornerback, Houston.
Now you’re looking for traits, particularly at important positions. Williams started 33 games in three years at Houston, played all over the secondary, two-year captain, highly competitive, highly recommended by his coaches. At this point, 141 picks into the draft, you’re not drafting Revises. You drafting 5-10 corners who run 4.5 and who have traits, and who your scouts love.
One of the Ravens’ most trusted scouts, David Blackburn, advocated hard for Williams with DeCosta. That means something to DeCosta. “I want those guys to know their voice counts with me,” DeCosta said.
In the room now, with time left on the clock before the 141st pick, Bisciotti said: “You see one of these corners we have left making our team?”
DeCosta said he did, then addressed Blackburn. “David, you like Williams, right?” They talked for a moment, and then DeCosta said, “We’re gonna pick the corner.”
Then two teams called, and DeCosta told both no thanks, they had a player to pick. He dialed the number he had for Williams … and the agent picked up. “I gotta get a hold of him or I’m not drafting him,” DeCosta said. Crisis averted: The agent gave DeCosta the number where Williams was, and GM told player he was a Raven. “One of our scouts, David Blackburn, really campaigned for you,” DeCosta told Williams. He handed the phone to Blackburn, so they could talk. Cool move.
At 1:51 p.m., THE PICK IS IN flashed on the TV screen in the draft room, the sixth of six fourth-round picks. Damarion Williams, CB, Houston.
In the first two days of the draft, the Ravens picked four players they fully expect to turn into starters by opening day 2023: safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum, edge rusher David Ojabo (who will rehab a torn Achilles in 2022) and defensive tackle Travis Jones.
In 95 minutes on day three of the draft, the Ravens picked six players they hope will turn into valuable puzzle pieces to a championship team.
One of the lessons Mejdal, the baseball analytics trailblazer, imparted to DeCosta was not to think of a group of players in one round in a clump. Don’t think, History says we’ll hit on two or three of these, so just understand we’ll probably miss on three or four. “Why can’t they all make it and be good players for you?” Mejdal said. “Once they’re drafted, they’re thrown onto a team, into practice, and soon you forget where they were drafted. Each player is an independent story.”
So 32 percent of the third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks over the past 15 years contributed significantly to the Ravens. DeCosta took Mejdal’s thoughts and expanded his percentages. Damarion Williams is an example. His 4.52-second 40 time is poor by NFL standards for a corner. But there’s another recent corner with a poor 40 time who will be discussed for the Hall of Fame in a few years. Richard Sherman ran a 4.56 40 at the 2011 combine. He has one thing Williams doesn’t: size. He’s four inches taller that Williams. Otherwise, their traits—feistiness, competitiveness, leadership—are similar. Williams is a corner you have to believe in because you’ve seen him play football.
“We feel great,” DeCosta said Sunday night. “We addressed a lot of concerns in that fourth round. Being totally honest, I think we’ll have three eventual starters, and three guys who will be quality depth for us.”
History says going six-for-six doesn’t happen. It probably won’t here either. But don’t tell that to the Ravens this morning. In the Baltimore draft room, in the corner, is a stuffed giraffe, maybe five feet tall. DeCosta’s son got it for a gift when he was a child, and DeCosta brought it into the room. There are few things in a draft room that can look more out of place than a stuffed giraffe that belongs in your kid’s nursery.
But it is there for a reason.
“Stick your neck out,” DeCosta said. “I want guys in here who aren’t afraid to tell me what they think, always.”
Peter King goes inside Baltimore Ravens’ war room at the 2022 NFL Draft originally appeared on NBCSports.com