Ravens: 'We know what we're doing'

OWINGS MILLS — The first important drafting decision was an especially daunting one for the Baltimore Ravens. It was nearly a dozen years ago, and the Ravens were heading into their inaugural draft after transforming the original Cleveland Browns into a transplanted Baltimore franchise.

Former majority owner Art Modell was bullish on the Ravens possibly drafting Nebraska All-American running back Lawrence Phillips, a talented football player with a disturbing history of domestic violence. Phillips once dragged his college girlfriend down a flight of steps by her hair and was widely viewed in NFL circles as an aloof, arrogant individual.
Yet, the Ravens came extremely close to taking a risk on Phillips for the first draft pick in team history.
There was a pivotal dinner with Phillips shortly before the draft with Modell, general manager Ozzie Newsome, former coach Ted Marchibroda and running backs coach Al Lavan. And the impression Phillips made left many in the organization fairly convinced that they could handle his multiple off-field issues.
However, the alternative strongly favored by Newsome and former director of college scouting Phil Savage to launch the franchise was to build a much safer foundation for the fourth overall pick of the NFL draft: massive UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Unlike Phillips, Ogden had no off-field concerns and demonstrated a bright, upbeat personality. More importantly, he fit the prototype for a left tackle with nimble feet that belied his 6-foot-9, 340-pound frame.
Ultimately, the Ravens turned in the draft card for Ogden after a final convincing argument from Savage who swore to Modell that drafting Phillips would mean never getting a good night's sleep and would create constant headaches.
Eleven years later, Ogden is a 10-time Pro Bowl selection regarded as a future Hall of Fame selection.
Including that initial draft which set the stage for a stellar track record in the first round, the Ravens have had 13 first-round picks. Eight of those players have been selected to at least one Pro Bowl with a total of 33 all-star invitations.
"Ozzie was not keen on the Phillips scenario," Modell recounted this week in a telephone interview. "I had called Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach, and he recommended that we take Phillips. He said he was a good kid who had learned from his mistakes and would be a hell of a producer for us.
"I didn't go with that opinion. I went with Ozzie and his instincts. With his instincts about football players, there's nobody better. Ozzie has a very organized mind, and his drafting track record has been exemplary."
A few hours after drafting Ogden, Newsome engineered another sound decision in the first round.
With the 26th overall pick, Newsome drafted undersized, intense University of Miami middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis emerged as an intimidating two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection.
Those first two decisions began a shrewd reputation. Ten of the Ravens' first-round draft picks remain on the current roster.
"I think the process is in place," said Newsome, who regularly cites his best-player-available mantra that represents the heart of the Ravens' drafting philosophy. "The process has been tweaked every year. Every year we do something different.
"Because I think not only have we had some successes, but I think we have learned a lot about our failures, the things we have done wrong, and we try not to repeat those. We utilize, ‘This time last year we did this, that was wrong, so let's try to do it a different way.'"
First-round tradition
For blue-chip athletes like Ogden, outside linebacker Peter Boulware or running back Jamal Lewis whom Baltimore drafted within the first five picks, there's typically an expectation that an organization has selected a so-called can't-miss prospect.
Even though that's usually not the reality for most NFL teams, especially the mistake-prone Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions, executives, coaches and scouts readily acknowledge it's much more difficult to hit on players in the bottom third of the first round.
That's where the Ravens' patient approach has paid dividends, though, with the acquisition of Lewis along with tight end Todd Heap in 2001 with the 31st overall pick even though the Ravens already had Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe in addition to Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed with the 24th pick in 2002 and emerging young wide receiver Mark Clayton with the 22nd pick in 2005.
Sports Illustrated ranked the Ravens as having three of the best all-time first-round picks with Lewis, Reed and Heap.
"Some of it is luck," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "We try to eliminate as much risk as we can. We try to build a consensus. Our coaches and scouts work very well together. We hash these things out over and over again.
"We talk about every issue with these players. Process is a word that you'll hear us use a lot and these guys get held under the same litmus test time and time again. Every player goes through the exact same thing. The players that survive are the players we try to draft, and it works for us."
Besides hitting on players 10th overall like cornerback Chris McAlister and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the Ravens have found players throughout the draft, including future All-Pro outside linebacker Adalius Thomas in the sixth round out of Southern Mississippi.
Part of that success stems from discipline.
The Ravens are fairly strict about not altering their strategy based on the immediate needs of the roster.
It's a big-picture approach that discourages tunnel vision on absolutely having to acquire one specific player.
Typically what transpires is the Ravens will only give a nod to a glaring need if the grades are identical or similar for two players at different positions when they're on the clock.
"We do not, especially on the first day of the draft or the top four picks, factor in need," Newsome said. "We factor in who's the best player. There have been some occasions where we took a player knowing that we had needs at other positions."
With the exception of cornerback Duane Starks, wide receiver Travis Taylor, quarterback Kyle Boller and recent first-round picks like Clayton and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, every player Baltimore has drafted in the first round has made at least one Pro Bowl.
While Starks was a successful starter who has intercepted 25 career passes, Taylor and Boller never met lofty expectations.
With inconsistent hands and health issues, Taylor has never produced a 1,000-yard season and is currently unemployed after two decent seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Boller was replaced after three inconsistent seasons as the starter last year when Baltimore traded for veteran Steve McNair.
Notable second-round misses include cornerback DeRon Jenkins, receiver Patrick Johnson and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, but that's also a round where Baltimore found linebacker Jamie Sharper, safety Kim Herring and defensive end Tony Weaver.
The Ravens' 1998 draft (Starks, Johnson, defensive tackle Martin Chase, safety Ryan Sutter, linebacker Ron Rogers, offensive tackle Sammy Williams and tight end Cam Quayle) and 2004 crop (Edwards, receiver Devard Darling, outside linebacker Roderick Green, quarterback Josh Harris, receiver Clarence Moore, return specialist Derek Abney and offensive guard Brian Rimpf) are probably the team's worst drafts ever.
Other than a non-specific allusion that drafting junior receivers as Baltimore did in the case of Taylor and Darling, a third-round pick with just two career receptions, Newsome declined to elaborate on where the Ravens have erred in the past on draft day.
"I will not acknowledge them in this room because I'll be acknowledging all the failures I've had in the past 12 years, but there are some things that we've learned over the years that have become principles and they become red flags," Newsome said. "When we start to talk about or head down a road, somebody will pull on the other one's coattails and say, ‘Hey, that's how we made a mistake five years ago.' There are troubles. There were some that we made last year that we've learned from that we're using this year."
Deep roots
The roots of the Ravens' drafting system began in Cleveland under future New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
After Newsome retired in 1990 following a Hall of Fame career as a tight end for the Browns, Modell brought him into the front office as a special assignment scout who also worked with the coaching staff.
Under Belichick and Ernie Accorsi, Newsome thrived in that role and was promoted to director of pro personnel by 1994.
Although Belichick never made it to Baltimore after being fired by Modell, Newsome was invited by Modell to become the Ravens' vice president of player personnel when he moved the team to Maryland. Modell formally promoted Newsome in 2002 as he became the NFL's first African-American general manager.
"I didn't get along with Belichick for other reasons and we parted company, but he was a brilliant football coach with a great football mind," Modell said. "Some of the habits of Belichick seeped out and became Ozzie's ways.
"It has been a democratic system for years where everyone has a voice in the meeting room. Ozzie has refined that over the years to where we have the best drafting system in football."
With the Ravens' success in scouting and acquiring players, they've grown branches throughout the league with former Newsome lieutenants like James Harris now running the Jacksonville Jaguars' personnel department and Savage now the Cleveland Browns' general manager.
Plus, former Baltimore defensive coordinators Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis are head coaches in San Francisco and Cincinnati, respectively, and have major influence over every personnel decision.
When asked if other teams have borrowed heavily from the Ravens' scouting techniques, Newsome replied: "Cincinnati, San Francisco, Cleveland and Jacksonville, I know they have. But I stole everything from New England."
Although the accent has changed dramatically from Savage's Alabama twang to DeCosta's Boston brogue, the results don't seem to have changed as Baltimore enters its third draft with DeCosta as its top scout.
DeCosta, 36, is a homegrown executive who started out behind the scenes driving players back and forth from the airport while assisting the older scouts. Promoted from an area scout to director of college scouting in 2003, he was recently honored by the Sporting News as one of the top young rising stars in the sports industry.
"Ozzie brings in people that can help him acquire good players," Modell said. "He's looking for smart people who will work hard. Just like Phil, that's what Eric is all about."
Since DeCosta took over for Savage in 2005, the Ravens have acquired two starters in the first round with Clayton improving to a career-high 67 receptions and a team-high 939 receiving yards last season. Ngata garnered some all-rookie notice as a 16-game starter with 51 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a 60-yard interception return.
"They both have a passion," Newsome said, comparing DeCosta to Savage. "I think they are both very organized in the way they go about their business. They both have unbelievable work ethics, they work tirelessly.
"Both are excellent evaluators, and that's what you have to be. You can have all those other characteristics, but if you can't evaluate talent, you're still not going to be any good."
DeCosta said that he already knows where he'll be Saturday morning around 3:30 a.m.: Jogging on Padonia Road.
"I worry," he said. "I don't really sleep much."
Replenishing the roster
Of course, making the Pro Bowl isn't the only measure of drafting success.
Entering last season, the Ravens had the highest percentage of players (74.2 percent) still on NFL rosters and the second-highest percentage of players still on their current roster (51.6 percent).
Part of that goes back to a firm belief that the draft, not free agency, is the lifeblood of the roster.
In the past two years, the Ravens have lost several key free agents, including Thomas to the Patriots.
Nose guard Maake Kemoeatu was replaced ably by Ngata, with last year's fifth-round safety, Dawan Landry, immediately eclipsing Will Demps' level of play and sixth-round pick Sam Koch stepping in for Dave Zastudil.
A hard-hitting 220-pounder, Landry exceeded the Ravens' expectations and intercepted five passes as a rookie.
"One thing we know is that free agency is not the key to success, the draft is," Newsome said. "If you talk to 31 other clubs, they'll all tell you that with free agency in play now, the draft is the key. Sometimes, we draft players knowing that it may be two years before we can get them onto the field."
A major aspect of the Ravens' system is requiring the area and national scouts to be experts on every potential draft prospect.
Since the Ravens don't belong to any national scouting services that provide lists and scouting reports on draft-eligible players, when a Baltimore scout goes to a college he's required to file a detailed, documented opinion on every single player on the roster.
The Ravens are one of a handful of teams that don't pay the $100,000 annually to subscribe to Blesto or National Scouting to provide background and physical information with cursory comments on prospects. Instead, the Ravens spend the money on their scouts.
With five area scouts, two national scouts in Lional Vital and Joe Hortiz, pro personnel director George Kokinis and assistant director of pro personnel Vince Newsome, the Ravens scour the country looking for who can block, tackle, catch and throw.
"We do a lot of cross-checking," DeCosta said. "A number of us look at everyone, and then we have the area scouts look at certain players from other regions so we get multiple grades and opinions on all the players."
Also, the Ravens don't rely on the psychological testing that some teams, especially the New York Giants, swear by.
They don't go off a doctor's report. They go on their gut instincts along with interviews and investigations of players' backgrounds.
"It works for other teams," DeCosta said, "but we trust our coaches and scouts."
And while the Ravens don't ignore so-called workout warriors' merit, they tend to be more old-fashioned in how they grade players with game film and character carrying the most weight. Institutional knowledge of a scout or an assistant coach is another major factor in determining how to rank players on the Ravens' draft board.
"We may have a scout or a coach who has proven he really knows how to spot talent at a certain position," Newsome said. "That opinion carries more weight when we're finalizing the board."
The barber shop
One tradition the Ravens have maintained over the years is encouraging an open-door policy they call the barber shop.
Basically, it just involves having an ongoing honest dialogue between the coaches, scouts and Newsome.
The Ravens' scouts and coaches are always talking football and telling stories. From that ability to freely discuss players, they hope to always get the best possible information to make an informed decision.
"We want everyone's opinion, especially from the scouts who have looked at the players the longest," Newsome said. "I think another strength of our room is that we respect and listen to each other."
Developing that trust factor comes with time.
When Billick was hired by Baltimore in 1999, he was concerned about Newsome trading the team's second-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons for their 2000 first-round pick.
"Brian said, ‘We don't want that trade, we need players, we don't have any players,' and Ozzie just looks at him," team spokesman Kevin Byrne said. "Brian turns to Art and says, ‘Art, we need players now. I've got to coach this team.' So, Ozzie nonchalantly makes the trade with Atlanta."
A year later, Baltimore drafted Jamal Lewis with the fifth overall pick they received from the Falcons.
Lewis spearheaded the Ravens' Super Bowl run as a rookie with his bruising running style and became the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2003 when he rushed for 2,066 yards.
At the time, Billick was worried the Ravens weren't going to be able to draft guard Edwin Mulitalo or wide receiver Brandon Stokley, Byrne said. Newsome assured Billick that at least one of the players would still be available in the fourth round.
Unconvinced, Billick stormed out of the room. The Ravens wound up drafting both Mulitalo and Stokley in the fourth round, bearing out Newsome's faith in his draft board.
"I remember how pissed off I was the first draft," Billick said. "You're anxious. It was a new role for me, not being familiar with Ozzie and the moves and who we had. By the end of the day, I could calm down and say, ‘Oh, OK, we know what we're doing here.'"
Between now and Saturday when Baltimore is scheduled to draft 29th overall, Newsome is assured of a lot of exploratory phone calls from his counterparts around the league along with Billick in his ear asking questions and offering suggestions.
"Now is the time when I'll see a lot of Brian Billick," Newsome said. "He does a good job of coming in and asking me questions, scrimmaging, opening up the barber shop. We've formed a relationship that way."
A road not traveled
So, what happened to Phillips, that troubled young man Baltimore took a pass on?
Well, he's not so young anymore. He's a convicted criminal whose football career is over.
After disastrous stints with the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, the San Francisco 49ers and the Canadian Football League along with multiple arrests, including punching a woman in the face at a Florida nightclub after she refused to dance with him, Phillips is in jail after being convicted of several charges of assault with a deadly weapon.
He was sentenced last year to up to 20 years in a California prison for intentionally running over three boys in a stolen car after losing to the teenagers in a pick-up football game in Los Angeles. By that point, Phillips' downward spiral was so complete that he pawned one of his Nebraska championship rings in Las Vegas for $20.
"Were we wrong? I don't know," Newsome said regarding the decision to pass on Phillips. "We didn't get the kid. The reason why we decided not to go in that direction was that Jonathan was a higher-rated player."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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