DeCosta, Ravens must weigh sticking with “sure thing” in Brown against trying to maximize future

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There are no guarantees, a truth reinforced to the Ravens during the 2020 season.

Two days after signing left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a five-year, $98.75 million contract extension, the 2019 All-Pro selection suffered a devastating season-ending ankle injury. His absence left an uphill climb the rest of the way for a shuffled offensive line that was already struggling without retired eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda at right guard.

The October acquisition of edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Minnesota required a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick, but surrendering potential long-term value was perfectly appropriate for the chance to improve Baltimore’s championship odds. The former University of Maryland standout didn’t make the impact many envisioned, however, leaving his future with the organization in question as he’s scheduled to hit the free-agent market next month. At the very least, general manager Eric DeCosta should gain an attractive 2022 compensatory pick if Ngakoue moves on after just 11 games with the Ravens, still justifying the trade.

The value of a “sure thing” — or as close as you get to one in the NFL — weighed against draft picks is always an interesting debate, which is what makes the Orlando Brown Jr. situation so compelling as the Ravens aim for a Super Bowl run after exits in the divisional round in each of the last two years and the two-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle desires a permanent move to left tackle that won’t happen with the team that drafted him. If Baltimore were in more of a transitional or rebuilding phase, dealing Brown would be elementary since he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent a year from now and the presumed draft capital coming back in a trade would bring more potential long-term value. But the Ravens are clearly better with Brown at right tackle and have no suitable replacement, meaning the value of having Pro Football Focus’ fifth-most valuable offensive tackle since 2018 for the coming season shouldn’t be downplayed in the name of assuming the best-case outcome for a hypothetical return.

For that reason, any trade needs to be more advantageous than merely “fair” to justify DeCosta pulling the trigger. That’s not to suggest a suitor is going to trade a superstar No. 1 wide receiver under team control or that ex-Houston coach Bill O’Brien will be sneaking back into an NFL front office to offer up two first-round picks and a second-round selection for Brown’s services. We do have to be practical here.

Still, the reality is that the Ravens own the leverage and are in the midst of a Super Bowl window that’s becoming more challenging financially as their young stars continue to command lucrative contract extensions. And while the sides have a good relationship and DeCosta did accommodate a trade request from 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst last offseason that eventually netted talented running back J.K. Dobbins, the Ravens can’t settle for a trade simply to make Brown happy if it’s a return they’re not all that excited about.  

There’s only so much Brown can do beyond considering a holdout that could jeopardize his free-agent status after 2021 or potentially lead to a mediocre season that would hurt his value on the open market next offseason. His desire to fulfill his late father’s wish for him to play left tackle is touching and makes perfect financial sense in the long run, but he also understands how this business works. Playing right tackle at a high level in a contract year isn’t going to make potential suitors suddenly forget how well he played on the left side in 2020, and he’d still be backing up Stanley, who’s missed 18 regular-season games over his five years. Ask former Ravens guard Kelechi Osmele how much starting four games at left tackle in 2015 helped his free-agent value as he got a massive contract with Oakland a few months later.

Even before Brown’s tweet two weeks ago, we were acknowledging the Ravens’ need to improve an offensive line that clearly missed Yanda this past season. Deliberately subtracting another Pro Bowl talent from that equation a year sooner than anticipated doesn’t sound like a path to a 2021 championship, especially with Stanley coming off a major injury. There isn’t another offensive tackle on the current roster to trust on the right side or as the trustworthy understudy at left tackle.

Yes, the upcoming offensive tackle draft class looks good on paper, but there’s no guarantee the Ravens land their guy or that he develops quickly enough, especially with the likelihood of another virtual offseason program ahead. Even if Baltimore finds a suitable replacement, how does that hinder the ability to address other positions of need such as outside linebacker, wide receiver, and the interior offensive line?

That’s why any offer not including a first-round pick or at least a high-impact veteran feels like a nonstarter for a team eyeing a Super Bowl in 2021.

That brings us to how other teams needing a left tackle currently feel about Brown. A talented tackle turning 25 in May and scheduled to make a reasonable $3.384 million in 2021 is very appealing, but he’s still made only 12 NFL starts at left tackle, which includes the postseason. Teams also have to consider the Lamar Jackson factor that undoubtedly impacts how defensive fronts play the run and rush the passer, making life easier for offensive linemen in many ways. That doesn’t mean Brown isn’t a terrific player, but it’s a fair question to ponder.

Most importantly, there’s the matter of making an immediate long-term commitment to Brown unless a team goes with O’Brien’s “blank check” approach with left tackle Laremy Tunsil last spring or wants to risk giving up so much capital for a single season. In these trades, the potential long-term value of a first-round pick can be all but replaced by the mere right to sign a veteran to a lucrative contract, which is why many teams shy away from the practice. If this year’s group of rookie offensive tackles is as good as advertised, Brown’s potential suitors are also considering these cheaper alternatives.

Of course, there are risks no matter how the Ravens proceed.

Like with the Ngakoue trade, “going for it” with Brown in his contract year doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl bid and could leave the Ravens with nothing to show for him beyond a 2023 compensatory pick, a fraction of what they’d hope to net in a trade in the coming weeks. There’s also the risk of an injury or a down season that could hurt both Brown and the Ravens in different ways. And while his professionalism has been second to none since his arrival in 2018, keeping a player who’d rather be somewhere else can be a risk for a team valuing its overall culture.

On the flip side, trading a known commodity could net cheap talent that contributes for several years — or the next Matt Elam or Breshad Perriman. And such a high-profile subtraction could turn what was already considered a vulnerable offensive line into an even bigger problem, which probably wouldn’t sit well with a former MVP quarterback Baltimore wants to ink to a long-term extension in the near future.   

The Ravens need to be truly excited about any potential trade because they know what they’d be giving up. But there’s never a guarantee, whether you’re sticking with the “sure thing” for another year or trying to maximize the future.