By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
6:08 PM EDT, April 21, 2013
Though the flicker of collegiate game tape isn't exactly candlelight, it can sometimes be love at first sight for a scout sitting in a dark film room, pining over pro prospects.
Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout who worked four years in the Ravens organization, experienced one of those moments in the months leading up to the 2007 NFL draft while watching tape of Iowa's Marshal Yanda. Years later, he still remembers one play when the senior offensive lineman de-cleated a defender with a violent peel-back block.
"That always stood out to me," said Jeremiah, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. "I thought, 'This guy has a big-time nasty demeanor.' … I loved Marshal Yanda, but there were a lot of us who did. He was a favorite of almost the entire scouting department."
The Ravens loved him so much, they drafted him in the third round that year even though they had already selected another guard, Auburn's Ben Grubbs, in the first round. As Jeremiah says now, drafting Yanda, now a two-time Pro Bowl guard, "has been a home run."
As general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens put the finishing touches on their draft board in preparation for Thursday's 2013 NFL draft, there is a new class of collegiate prospects who have smitten Ravens scouts, coaches and front-office decision-makers. The scouting process is long, tiring and taxing, but each spring, there are players like Yanda who become the object of the Ravens' eye and other NFL teams.
The Ravens, who have 12 picks in this year's draft, must do their due diligence, though, before committing, and other teams may sweep a prospect off his feet before the Ravens are on the clock.
But for those talent evaluators inside the Castle, few professional experiences, if any, feel better than on draft day when they are finally able to land a prospect they have coveted for months.
"Once we draft him, you are excited about him just to begin with, because you have done the work, and you know what you are getting," said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens director of college scouting. "When you see that transpire on the field and him develop as a player, it is tremendously rewarding — individually and really more collectively as a team — because we know we did it as a group. It started with one [scout] who went in there first, and he spread the word, so to speak."
Shortly after last year's draft, the Ravens' scouts turned their focus to the incoming senior class.
During the fall, area scouts made two or three visits to the bigger schools. In some cases, a cross-checking scout, a national scout or even someone from the front office dropped in on campus, too.
They viewed hours of video on each prospect. They watched practice or took in a game to gauge the player's speed, explosiveness and other football traits that may be tougher to see on film. They chatted with as many people as possible — from coaches and coordinators to trainers and academic advisors — to learn more about the player's personality, work habits and intelligence.
After the NCAA season, the scouts got more face time with some prospects at all-star games, the NFL scouting combine, college pro days and, in some cases, private workouts with the team.
And all that work was just to finalize the reports the Ravens needed to evaluate each prospect.
"You can tell by the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are spent on picking six, seven, eight players, just how important that the draft is to the future of the team," said Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive and agent who now works for ESPN.
Brandt said that most teams assemble their draft boards before the scouting combine, sifting through player evaluations, medical reports and, in some cases, police records so they can rank prospects both by position and overall. They must do quick work on underclassmen who in December or January declared for the draft early.
Coaches, who design a blueprint for what they want at each position, jump into the scouting process after the season ends and have some input in the process.
Draft boards are tweaked until the final days before the draft as more information is gathered.
"So when you get in that room, you have to trust the board," said Brandt, who was the Green Bay Packers vice president when they used their first-round pick in 2005 on quarterback Aaron Rodgers even though they had a perennial Pro Bowler at the position named Brett Favre. "When the pick is up, and you have a player rated higher on the board and your time is up, then really the decision is made for you."
Years ago, drafting Haloti Ngata seemed like an easy decision for the Ravens, at least from a physical standpoint.
The hulking Oregon defensive tackle, who declared for the 2006 NFL draft as a junior, had rare size, strength and athleticism at a position the Ravens were hoping to upgrade that spring. But there were whispers that the 340-pounder took plays off. The whispers were quickly tuned out when Jeremiah, then a West Coast area scout for the Ravens, popped in the tape of Oregon's game against Arizona .
Playing special teams, Ngata barreled into the backfield and blocked a punt by Arizona's Danny Baugher, who scooped up the football and started running down the field. Ngata tracked Baugher down 39 yards later and tackled him so hard the punter tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Not worried about Ngata's effort level, the Ravens on draft day traded a sixth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns to move up one spot to the 12th overall pick to make sure they secured their man.
"Ozzie made the absolute right call," Jeremiah said. "There was so much conviction among the coaches and scouts and everybody in the draft room. We were all pretty excited when he got that done."
But it can be equally as upsetting when a coveted player is drafted by another team just before your team was on the clock. That happened to the Ravens with safety Bob Sanders, a 2004 second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts who Jeremiah said the Ravens were very high on.
"There's nothing more deflating than having a guy that you love, a guy that you fought for, and feeling like there is a chance you are going to get him only to see him get drafted one or two slots ahead of where you're picking," Jeremiah said. "Every single year that happened."
In the hopes of avoiding that sinking feeling, teams try to be tight-lipped with their evaluations of players to hide their intentions, sometimes going to extreme measures.
Gil Brandt, a scouting pioneer for the Dallas Cowboys decades ago who now does radio for Sirius XM, calls it "April Foolery."
One of his favorite examples of this is when the Denver Broncos traded up to draft quarterback Jay Cutler in 2006 (one pick before Ngata). They were enamored with the strong-armed quarterback but were coy about it. They didn't bring him in for a visit or go to Vanderbilt to work him out.
"Nobody had any idea Denver was interested in him," Brandt said.
Drafting 32nd overall, the Ravens will likely stick to their board like they did in past years when they drafted future Pro Bowl players such as linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and tight end Todd Heap late in the first round and players like Yanda and cornerback Lardarius Webb after the first round.
It's a labor of love, but strong scouting and patience have been the secrets to their success.
"I just think we trust our scouts and coaches. We watch these guys starting in the fall, and we watch them in the all-star games and the combine, and we listen to the reports, the background the information," assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "We put it all together and we pick the best guy."
An earlier version of this story said the Ravens missed out on drafting Roddy White, but Baltimore actually passed on the wide receiver at 22 to take Mark Clayton before the Falcons selected White at 27. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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