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Baltimore Ravens making sweeping changes under Eric DeCosta

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The signings of safety Earl Thomas and running back Mark Ingram don't fill every need for the Baltimore Ravens, but they do address an important ingredient in any recipe for team success: leadership.

"From a coach's standpoint, that's huge," former Cincinnati Bengals head man Marvin Lewis told me. "Sometimes it's overlooked by management, in my opinion."

When it was obvious that the Ravens would lose four starters from their top-ranked defense -- one due to his release and the three others to free agency -- many people immediately focused on the departure of Terrell Suggs' 132.5 career sacks, Eric Weddle's 36 career takeaways, Za'Darius Smith's team-high 8.5 sacks last season and C.J. Mosley's club-leading 105 tackles in 2018. No surprise there, because that's production that we can see and chart and quantify.

But how do you measure leadership? Spreadsheets don't have a column for it. Managers don't have a Wonderlic for it. And yet the smart ones will tell there really is no substitute for it.

"Sometimes [decision-makers] don't understand that part of its importance is those guys policing downstairs (in the locker room), so you don't have to do it all the time as a coach," Lewis said. "When you have great leadership, those players take care of half your problems before they ever rise to your level."

While Thomas and Ingram were signed for their ability to produce on the field, these two should also be key figures in filling the leadership void that was created by the loss of those four defensive starters. At some point, that responsibility could fall to Lamar Jackson. For now, though, it appears the organization's preference was to not put the bulk of that on the 22-year-old quarterback's shoulders. Jackson is entering his second NFL campaign and certainly could use at least one more season of intensive focus on himself and his game before adding the broader responsibility of managing all the things that come with being the face of a franchise.

The importance of veteran leadership was most obvious for the Ravens last November, when the club made the switch from Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco to Jackson, a rookie who was viewed as a project because of perceived limitations as a passer. It would have been easy for the Ravens to disappear in a cloud of inevitability, having lost three in a row to fall 2.5 games behind the front-running Steelers in the AFC North. But veterans such as Weddle, Suggs and Mosley would not allow it, and Baltimore rallied to win six of its final seven games to claim the division title and a playoff berth.

Although some might look critically at the Ravens for making such dramatic changes to a defense that was No. 1 overall, No. 2 in points allowed and No. 3 in third-down efficiency, the reality is that such a transformation was going to come at some point, and this was as good a time as any with Eric DeCosta taking over day-to-day operations for revered general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose resume as a personnel man is as impressive as his Hall of Fame playing career with the Browns.

DeCosta must be true to himself and shape the team in his vision, which clearly does not involve overpaying for veterans nearing the finish line of stellar careers or for younger free agents seeking landmark deals. A key to any good executive is having the conviction to remain disciplined and trust his evaluations. DeCosta has done that to this point, even as some Ravens fans began wringing their hands as divisional foe Cleveland was dominating the headlines by trading for Odell Beckham Jr., a premier young wideout, and bringing in Kareem Hunt, one of the game's top young running backs (although Hunt is expected to face suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy). Those acquisitions, when added to an already-talented roster that also just gained Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon on defense, make the Browns immediate contenders for the division title -- if not more.

But DeCosta isn't trying to win headlines. He's trying to win games. Some might not like that he allowed so many household names to leave this offseason, but part of fans' nervousness is that they know little about the youngsters who will be asked to step up. Truth is, DeCosta can't say with certainty how the former backups will perform. But there's only one way to find out, and that's by playing them.

"I thought Bill Walsh was masterful at letting guys go a year early," Lewis said. "What 49er in the Hall of Fame retired as a 49er? Only one (Steve Young). That's the amazing thing about Coach Walsh and his time being involved there; he would always move on to that next player before the guy he had fell apart on him. That's the hardest thing to do -- and in today's NFL, it's even more difficult because of the cost of it and free agency. You really have to do a better job with the overall planning of the entire team and how it all looks and how it all fits together. When teams go into this part of the year, they have a plan. That said, they may get sidetracked or derailed when that person they're counting on to step up or be that guy doesn't immediately meet the expectations of everyone."

Having respected leadership from players like Thomas and Ingram should only help smooth the transition.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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