By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
8:21 PM EST, January 17, 2013
NFL general managers aren't unlike most discerning shoppers, scouring the marketplace for bargains and trying to avoid wasting precious dollars.
While those intentions aren't always realized for even the smartest talent evaluators, sometimes they strike gold in free agency without having to make a hefty investment.
That was the case for the Ravens this season, as the AFC North champions added former Chicago Bears Pro Bowl special-teams ace Corey Graham, former Houston Texans kick returner and wide receiver Jacoby Jones and strong-legged kicker Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of Texas.
Without their contributions, the Ravens likely would not have advanced to Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium — and might not have even made the playoffs.
During the Ravens' 38-35 double-overtime victory over the Denver Broncos in last week's divisional round, Graham intercepted Peyton Manning twice. He returned the first interception for a touchdown, and the second led to Tucker's game-winning 47-yard field goal.
Jones provided the Ravens' most exciting play, sprinting behind the Broncos' secondary for a 70-yard game-tying touchdown to send the game into overtime.
"The Ravens do an excellent job of finding guys that fit their system," said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. "It's not always about how much money you pay for a guy. You look for values, and you look for guys who can do a lot of different things. [General manager] Ozzie Newsome and his staff do an incredible job of finding players."
Newsome deflected credit for signings like Graham, Jones and Tucker, saying: "I think [director of pro personnel] Vince Newsome and [assistant director of pro personnel] Chad Alexander do a very good job in our pro personnel department."
But the signings of those three players have proven to be crucial considering the production they've generated and their importance to an injury-riddled roster.
Graham earned his shot
Without landing Graham for a two-year, $4.2 million contract that included a $1.2 million signing bonus, the Ravens could have been in serious jeopardy at cornerback.
Having already suffered a damaging blow to the secondary when top cover cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, the Ravens also lost former first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith to a sports hernia that required surgery.
Since that injury, Graham has established himself as a viable starting cornerback opposite Cary Williams. He's usually responsible for guarding opponents' slot receiver and will likely match up Sunday with shifty Patriots receiver Wes Welker.
"Corey is just a great football player, and that's the thing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When you see guys play well on tape, whatever they're doing, if they do it well, you've got a football player. He's got very good ball skills. He's got very good feet. He's got tremendous understanding of the game, good body control. So, he's got all the things that make for a good defensive back."
Graham chose the Ravens over competing offers, making his decision largely based on assurances from Harbaugh that he would be given a legitimate opportunity to play cornerback after being typecast as a special-teams contributor in Chicago.
"I knew that it was a place that if showed what you can do, you will be out there," Graham said. "Brendon Ayanbadejo, I played with him in Chicago. In Chicago, there was no way he was going to touch the field on defense. Then he comes here and I am seeing him out there playing. It's like, 'Wow, he's getting a chance.' I knew when I sat down to talk to coach [Harbaugh] that he would give me that chance.
"When you get the label of a special-teamer, it's tough to get that label off of you no matter what you do. Lovie Smith loved what I did as a special-teamer, and that's what he wanted from me no matter what. I could go out and get six interceptions at corner in practice, but, no matter what, I was going to be Corey Graham, special-teamer."
Graham has justified the Ravens' confidence in him, making 54 tackles during the regular season along with eight pass deflections and two interceptions.
He had eight tackles against the Broncos and deflected three passes.
"I like to think I can do a little bit of everything," Graham said. "I recognize routes really well. I like to think I'm physical. I can tackle really well. I'm a pretty savvy corner."
Graham laughed when asked if he's underrated, replying: "I don't mind being underrated, but you never want to be underpaid."
Against the Broncos, Graham shadowed Brandon Stokley for an overtime interception when Manning tried to force the football into a tight spot while throwing on the move. In the first quarter, Graham alertly grabbed a Manning pass deflected by nickel back Chykie Brown, returning the interception 39 yards for a touchdown.
"Graham defines value," said former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an NFL Network analyst. "He is the story of that bunch. He's been outstanding. When Webb got hurt, it could have been devastating. If you look at Chicago, their two corners [Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings] are both going to the Pro Bowl. So, you see why Graham wasn't playing as much. ...
"What sets the Ravens apart from other organizations is they excel in every area you can improve your roster. They don't take any phase lightly. They prepare meticulously and are exhaustive in preparation. They send a lot of scouts out on the road. They hit on some huge values this year."
Jones and Tucker were special
Cut by the Texans months after he lost a key fumble in the Ravens' AFC divisional-round playoff win last year, Jones emerged as the most dangerous return specialist in the NFL this season.
After signing for two years and $7 million, Jones earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl with had three touchdown returns, including a 108-yard kickoff return against the Dallas Cowboys that tied the NFL record for longest return. Jones led the NFL with a 30.7 kickoff return average.
His 63-yard punt return in a Nov. 18 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the Ravens' lone touchdown in a 13-10 win at Heinz Field.
"It's definitely a win-win situation," Jones said. "I think they knew what they were getting with me. I don't think they were surprised. I wasn't surprised. They gave me the opportunity, and it worked out."
So did signing Tucker, who agreed to a three-year, $1.44 million contract with minimum base salaries and no signing bonus after an impressive minicamp tryout. In training camp, he beat out former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, whose 32-yard missed field-goal attempt in last year's AFC title game would have sent the game to overtime.
Solidifying the kicking game for the Ravens, Tucker made 30 of 33 field goal attempts in the regular season and all 42 extra points.
"They hit huge on Tucker," Jeremiah said. "He's made so many clutch kicks."
If not for Cundiff faltering in the AFC championship and Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg traveling to Texas shortly before the NFL draft for a private workout with Tucker, the rookie might never have come to Baltimore.
"It's been a perfect fit," Tucker said. "I'm having a blast. Getting this chance is a blessing in itself, and this is really a cool organization to be a part of.
"It has definitely been really fun. It's the reason you play the game is to be in big moments like this, to share these moments with all the people who have been on my journey, everyone in this locker room."
Three of the Ravens' biggest free agent acquisitions were relatively inexpensive. Here's a look at the production the AFC North champions got from three key contributors and how much they cost to sign:
Production: Three touchdown returns for Pro Bowler, including 108-yarder against Cowboys to tie NFL record for longest kickoff return. Led NFL with 30.7 kickoff return average; caught game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass against the Broncos.
Contract: Two years, $7 million, $1.8 million signing bonus; $1 million roster bonus due March 16.
Production: Intercepted Peyton Manning twice with one touchdown in AFC divisional round, had two interceptions in regular season with 54 tackles, eight pass deflections in eight starts.
Contract: Two years, $4.204 million, $1.2 million signing bonus.
Production: Connected on 30 of 33 on field goals, hit 47-yard game-winner in overtime against Broncos.
Contract: Three years, $1.44 million; minimum base salaries with no signing bonus.
-- Aaron Wilson
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun