Ravens like Sanders' hit man mentality

OWINGS MILLS – Bob Sanders built a reputation within Big Ten football circles for demonstrating reckless abandon on blitzes and for a series of bone-breaking tackles.

Besides being labeled as "The Hitman" by Iowa teammates for his trademark aggressiveness, the All-American strong safety transformed the NFL annual scouting combine into a personal Olympics.

The Erie, Pa., native covered 40 yards in 4.36 seconds to rank as one of the fastest players. His vertical leap was 41 inches. And he had a 10-foot-6 long jump in front of the league's head coaches and general managers this winter in Indianapolis.

Yet, this stocky Iowa Hawkeye's distinct lack of height will likely delay his selection in this weekend's draft.

Several scouts and analysts have said that Sanders' modest dimensions of 5-foot-8 and 204 pounds are the primary reason he won't be drafted in the first round. He's more apt to be selected in the second round or the third round.

The Baltimore Ravens say they're inclined to value Sanders for his toughness, speed, production and instincts rather than downgrade him for being the shortest safety in the draft. Sanders visited the Ravens' training complex on Friday.

"Bob Sanders, he's a football player," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome in what amounts to high praise from a personnel boss sparing in his compliments of prospects. "Ray Lewis was 6-foot, 225 pounds when he came out of Miami, so for certain players you throw out all the measurables.

"We look at everything, but at the end of the day we're looking for football players."

An all-state running back at Erie's Cathedral Prep who was ignored by Penn State recruiters, Sanders appears to fit that definition.

Sanders has top speed and agility for a safety and excels in single-coverage against smaller running backs, shorter tight ends and slot receivers. He has been compared favorably to former undersized, intense NFL safeties Blaine Bishop and Andre Waters.

Against the Indiana Hoosiers in 2001, Sanders had 25 tackles.

In a victory over Minnesota last fall, he had 16 tackles, two for losses, a quarterback sack, forcing three fumbles and recovering one.

"I just tried to stick my nose in wherever I thought the ball was," Sanders told Iowa reporters after the Minnesota game.

Iowa senior defensive lineman Howard Hodges said: "It was a Hit Man kind of day."

Sanders' first collegiate play was a rough tackle of Kansas State return man David Allen four years ago.

Since then, he has produced 345 career tackles, including a team-high 122 as a sophomore, and was named all-Big Ten Conference three times.

Last fall, he forced six fumbles.

"There's no question he changed the tempo of our defensive thinking," said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, a former Ravens offensive line coach. "Certain guys have that ability. He's a very explosive, dynamic player. That makes him rare and unique."

Ferentz said Sanders' backpedaling skills were rudimentary when he arrived in Iowa City, so he was strictly a force player initially.

Last season, Sanders battled through foot and ankle injuries and finished with 72 tackles, a sack, an interception and three fumble recoveries. He became more of a factor in pass coverage with each season.

"Bob is a talented athlete," Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker said. "He might be short, but I don't know that Bob is small. Without question Bob is one of the best hitters in the country. He loves to play the game, and he's fun to be around.

"He is a little bit contagious. I would say Bob is the catalyst. It is more by his actions. Bob is not a big talker. It is sort of a 'follow me and watch what I do' kind of thing."

At the Senior Bowl, Sanders reportedly leveled USC wideout Keary Colbert during the first full-pad practice of the week.

"The thing we have to do with Bob – he practices 100 miles an hour – you've got to sort of calm him down so he doesn't wear himself out and he doesn't hurt himself," Parker said.

Or someone else.

The obvious question mark on Sanders – lack of size – is a legitimate concern.

How will he fare against tight ends who dwarf him by nearly a foot and sixty to seventy pounds?

Will Sanders' vertical leap and timing be enough to allow him to compete for the football with taller receivers in confined quarters like the red zone?

And will other safety prospects, following Miami blue-chipper Sean Taylor, such as UCLA's Matt Ware, Georgia's Sean Jones, Purdue's Stuart Schweigert, Ohio State's Will Allen or Arizona State's Jason Shiver, hear their names called before Sanders?

Sanders will find out on Saturday, but at least one team sounds impressed with him and might give him heavy consideration with its picks in the second or third round.

Newsome said last week that the Ravens may shift cornerback Gary Baxter to safety opposite Pro Bowl selection Ed Reed if the team drafts a talented cornerback, or leave him at his current spot if a promising safety is added.

"Bob Sanders is a very, very physical guy," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "He has a very tough mentality."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

Ravens Insider Top Stories