Stakes are high for Ravens as Ozzie Newsome prepares to run his last draft as GM

For 22 years, he has ruled — quietly but absolutely — over every decision the Ravens have made in their draft room.

Through most of that tenure, Baltimore football fans trusted Ozzie Newsome’s judgment more deeply than any other facet of the team’s operation. After all, he held firm to his sacred board in 1996 and picked Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden over gifted but troubled running back Lawrence Phillips, who was coveted by Ravens owner Art Modell.

From there, the great players and superb values seemed to flow in every spring, healing whatever ailed the franchise.

But as Newsome prepares to run his final draft as general manager this week, fans’ faith in his wisdom has waned, at least slightly. The team’s inability to find a superstar playmaker and its glaring misses on a few high-round picks have left the roster shaky in spots. And Newsome has put the onus on himself to right the ship before he hands the wheel to his longtime assistant, Eric DeCosta.

“I need to take all the blame,” he said at the team’s annual pre-draft news conference. “And it falls right on me. So yes, John [Harbaugh] and his staff do an unbelievable job, but we have to do a better job of bringing in players.”

It’s almost impossible to find anyone around the NFL who will criticize Newsome. Peers and analysts have too much respect for his track record and status as a league insider, despite the Ravens’ mixed success in recent drafts.

Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and host of the Ross Tucker Football Podcast, called Newsome the best drafter of the past 20 years. But he allowed that the Ravens general manager has had better days in terms of fan perception.

“For right now, the way it’s ending, I think his reputation has lost a little bit. That’s how people remember it on some level — what have you done for me lately?” Tucker said. “I think when he retires, when it’s over, initially some people might say that. But then as far as 10 years from now, nobody will remember that the end was like this.”

If Newsome feels any pressure to go out with a bang, it’s a good kind — the same mixture of anticipation, exhilaration and responsibility that pushed him through 13 seasons as a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns. This is his favorite time of year.

“Well you know, from the very first draft ... I had the same anticipation, I had the same butterflies as I did when I walked out of that tunnel to play in my first NFL game,” he said. “It was like that. You know all of the work is done, and then you have this moment where you have to pull the trigger; you have to go and perform. And I enjoy that aspect of it, just like I enjoyed competing on the field, because you’re still competing with 31 other clubs about getting it right. And that same enthusiasm, that same fear that I had coming out of that tunnel, I have it on Thursday nights now, especially when we get within an hour of our pick, because that’s when things start to happen.”

Newsome’s drafting legacy lies not just in the players he’s picked but in the talent evaluators who learned under him and landed other prominent jobs around the football world — from James “Shack” Harris to Phil Savage to Terry McDonough to T.J. McCreight. That constant churn of front-office talent has hurt the Ravens at times. The staff of the world champion Philadelphia Eagles, for example, is loaded with Baltimore alumni.

But Newsome accepts that inevitability, much as he accepts the twist and turns of draft day.

“Part of the process that we have is built on us knowing that at some point, we are going to lose some of our better scouts, because they want the opportunity to be sitting in my seat,” he said. “You have to expect that. The feeder system that we’ve had [is] that everybody pays it back.”

Those who’ve shared a draft room with Newsome say he’s changed little over the years. He’s more apt to listen than talk, more apt to wait until the last second than get ahead of himself. His steady faith in the team’s draft board reassures the people around him.

“In the end, Ozzie takes it all in,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll ask a couple key questions, but he’s listening and then he pulls the trigger. Ozzie pulls the trigger and makes a decision, and we all feel good about it.”

DeCosta has been Newsome’s closest acolyte. As he tells it, he resisted jumping to another team in large part because he works underneath a man he admires deeply.

“I think the thing about Ozzie is he’s great listener,” DeCosta said. “It’s a very underappreciated quality that people have. He may be in a meeting that we had in November and someone may have said something about a player and we’ll come back in a meeting in April and Ozzie will say, ‘Didn’t you say this in November?’ because he listens. He’s not a guy who has to talk all the time. He’s got tremendous humility. A lot of people — a Hall of Fame player and probably Hall of Fame executive — they would want to talk all the time. And he listens all the time.”

The team’s general-manager-in-waiting said there’s one quality he’d most like to steal from his mentor.

“It would be patience,” DeCosta said. “I’m not a patient person by nature, and he has tremendous patience. I’m amazed how he can sit there though the game and not say a word. I just don’t have that quality. It’s very hard to me — some of these guys have probably sat near me — I really try hard in the press box on game day to be quiet and not say anything. But I’m not just wired like Ozzie. It’s a flaw that I have and a strength that he has.”

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick recalled with awe the first draft he spent beside Newsome. The new head coach was practically jumping out of his chair as he watched coveted players fly off the board. Newsome, meanwhile, waited for the pieces to fall with an almost Zen reserve.

“Ozzie always had a plan as we were approaching a pick. If we were four away, there were five guys. If we were two away, there were three guys,” Billick said. “I remember we're coming up in the third round and wanted Edwin Mulitalo and Brandon Stokley, and this is who we had on the board. And Ozzie had sized up the board and saw where things were going and said, 'No, we're OK. We'll get these guys later.' I'm going, 'Just make a pick, damn it,' and we ended up getting them in later picks. So that very first one was when I recognized — I always said Ozzie was like the Russell Crowe character in 'A Beautiful Mind.' He'd just sit in the draft room, and it's like names were coming off the board in a way that was beyond my pay grade. But that's because he was such a great listener. He would draw on something that was said about this guy or that guy, and it was a joy to be around him.”

Critics, on the other hand, might argue that Newsome has been too patient in recent years, sticking to his tried-and-true philosophy while watching gifted skill-position players vanish from the board.

In their pre-draft comments, Newsome and DeCosta made it clear that whatever tweaks they’ve made to their assessment methods, their core philosophy of taking the best player available, regardless of position, will never change. If that leads to them taking a right tackle over a wide receiver this year, as fans groan and boo, so be it. They don’t regret using their first four picks on defensive players last year, despite the team’s glaring need for pass catchers.

Even owner Steve Bisciotti’s comment that “there is a really good chance we won't be drafting a defensive tackle in the first round,” made the same day he announced DeCosta would succeed Newsome after the 2018 season, did not seem to dissuade them.

“The work is being done and will get done over the course of the next 22 days,” Newsome said earlier this month. “And at that point the board is going to get set, and we’ll be prepared to pull the trigger. Is it going to be four defensive players this year? I would hope not, because we’ve got some areas on offense that we think we can improve, based on the players in the draft. But I can’t control … I’ve always said I can’t control what those other 15 people in front of me are going to do.”

Draft analysts, who’ve always thought highly of Newsome’s work, note that he’s still found his share of excellent values in recent years. The Ravens picked players such as Brandon Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen in the third round or lower and all signed lucrative free-agent deals after blossoming in Baltimore.

Three of the past four first-round picks — C.J. Mosley in 2014, Ronnie Stanley in 2016 and Marlon Humphrey in 2017 — returned immediate value as rookies.

But the Ravens have whiffed on plenty as well, from first-rounders Breshad Perriman in 2015 and Matt Elam in 2013 to a succession of second-round busts that include Kamalei Correa, Maxx Williams and Arthur Brown.

Savage, who now analyzes the draft for SiriusXM Radio, said Newsome is as astute at finding talent as ever but that the entire league has improved at drafting, meaning the Ravens go in with less advantage than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

“Not as many players fall through the cracks,” he said.

But he scoffed at the idea that Newsome’s stature is diminished in any way or that he has something to prove with this draft.

“Our call is not long enough for me to list all of his accomplishments,” Savage said.

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