Earlier this month, Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta described the theme of this weekend's NFL draft as a "depth draft for the Ravens at virtually every position."
And to round out a roster that team officials feel can be molded into another Super Bowl contender, the Ravens spent Saturday's final day of the draft diving deep into the collegiate talent pool.
The final four rounds of the Ravens' 2012 draft were highlighted by the selection of a trio of small-school prospects who filled secondary needs. In the fourth round, the Ravens drafted Delaware interior lineman Gino Gradkowski and South Carolina State free safety Christian Thompson. At the end of the fifth, they took Cal Poly cornerback and kick returner Asa Jackson.
Though he pointed out that Gradkowski and Thompson experienced major college football before transferring to their current schools, DeCosta said the Ravens' scouting department — regarded as one of the best in the NFL — enjoys the challenge of trying to find the next Joe Flacco or Lardarius Webb.
"We take pride in really looking at these small-school guys and being able to compare these guys to the big-school guys," he said. "I think scouting has become so good around the league that there are some good players at some of these small schools, and I think there is an opportunity there for us to maybe take advantage of our scouts and find some of those guys."
In the final two rounds, the Ravens added additional depth at wide receiver with Miami's Tommy Streeter and on the defensive line with Georgia's DeAngelo Tyson.
Before this weekend, the Ravens had never selected a player from Iowa State, Temple, South Carolina State, or Cal Poly. And Flacco was the only player they had drafted from Delaware.
But after drafting Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw with their first pick in Friday's second round, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome ventured into uncharted territory by picking Iowa State guard Kelechi Osemele and Temple running back Bernard Pierce. A day later, the Ravens mined the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) ranks for lesser-known prospects.
The Ravens have hit on two FCS prospects in recent years — drafting Flacco in the first round in 2008 and Webb, a Nicholls State defensive back, in the third round in 2009.
Newsome said the organization has shifted its focus in recent years to scour the lower levels for talent, in part because the information available to NFL teams continues to increase.
"We go into the small schools and do the same amount of work as the big schools," Newsome said as the seventh round wound down. "Our scouts, when they go into the Delaware or the Cal Poly or the South Carolina State, it's just like when they go into Ohio State, Maryland or Alabama."
And when players they coveted at the top of their board were selected by other teams throughout the weekend, DeCosta said the Ravens "had to get creative quickly on the fly."
"Things don't always happen the way you want them to," DeCosta said. "Some drafts, every player that you want kind of comes to you. And other drafts — this year comes to mind, 2010 was very similar to this year — sometimes you just get wiped out and you have four players and all the sudden, boom, they're done, and you have to get creative."
The Ravens said before the draft that they wanted to add offensive linemen, a pass rusher, and a wide receiver. They also wanted to add more depth in their secondary and at running back. A dangerous return man was also on their lengthy shopping list.
Coach John Harbaugh admitted the cap-strapped Ravens — who live by the draft mantra of "take the best player available" — felt they had to fill holes on their roster through the draft.
"You always try to draft the best player out there and try to make your team as strong as you can, but there is also the element of need," said Harbaugh, the only coach to take his team to the past four NFL postseasons. "We do have some opportunity in there for these guys to play."
Gradkowski, the younger brother of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, transferred to Delaware from West Virginia and became one of the top linemen in the Colonial Athletic Association. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Pittsburgh native played both center and guard in his senior season. He said he's eager to pick the brain of veteran center Matt Birk.
Even with the return of Birk, who signed a three-year contract to remain in Baltimore, the Ravens wanted to draft and develop a long-term replacement at the center position. They passed on more notable center prospects from major programs — among them were Georgia's Ben Jones, Baylor's Philip Blake and Michigan's David Molk — to select Gradkowski.
"He's a tough kid," Harbaugh said. "He's a quick-footed, really athletic center. ... We are going to start him off at guard probably and move him in at center as we go and see how it goes."
An Auburn transfer, Thompson played three seasons at South Carolina State. After manning the strong safety position for two years, he started all 11 games at free safety during his senior season, recording a career-high 66 tackles, recovering a fumble and intercepting two passes.
Ravens safety Ed Reed served as a mentor to Thompson leading up to the draft. Now Thompson joins him in a Ravens secondary that Webb recently boasted was the NFL's finest. The Ravens, who also added veteran Sean Considine in free agency, were in need of reinforcements at safety after Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski signed elsewhere this offseason.
"Christian Thompson [is] big, physical. He fits the mold of [our first three picks]," Harbaugh said. "There is a theme to our draft right now. He is a hard-hitter. … He gets after people physically."
Jackson, who is 5-feett-10 and 190 pounds, picked off eight passes and wasn't beaten for a touchdown in man coverage in his final three seasons.
The Ravens are stacked at cornerback with Webb, Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams, but Jackson will be expected to contribute on special teams immediately and will be in the competition to be a return specialist. Jackson averaged 14.7 yards on punt returns and 25.1 returning kickoffs.
After prompting even the savviest of Ravens fans to Google his first three picks Saturday, Newsome turned to a familiar football factory with his sixth-round pick, selecting Miami wide receiver Tommy Streeter. Streeter is the sixth player Newsome has picked from Miami during his tenure. Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Reed are their most notable former Hurricanes.
Only Oklahoma has produced more Ravens draft picks (seven all-time) than Miami and Alabama (six each).
Team officials had said they hoped to draft a wide receiver, and Streeter is a tall vertical target who may help them expand their downfield passing attack. A hair under 6-foot-5, Streeter has excellent straight-ahead speed for his size. At the scouting combine, he ran the 40-yard dash at 4.40 seconds. But his route-running, catching, and other areas of his game could use polishing.
Tyson, the team's seventh-round pick, started 23 games for Georgia the past two seasons. The 6-foot-2, 315-pound defensive end will be in the mix for a spot in the defensive line rotation.
"If you look back over the three days at what we've been able to do with our football team, you all knew the areas that we wanted to address, and I think we've been able to do it with the young men that we've drafted," Newsome said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun