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Ravens again show confidence in drafting small-school players

Growing up in the farming community of Fort Morgan, Colo., Ravens rookie offensive lineman Ryan Jensen would never have been mistaken for a future NFL draft pick.

Although his older brother, Seth, had played defensive tackle at Nebraska, Jensen weighed just 210 pounds as a high school senior and was virtually ignored by major college recruiters.

So Jensen accepted a scholarship offer to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, where he bulked up to 317 pounds and emerged as an All-American. Selected by the Ravens in the sixth round Saturday, Jensen became the first player drafted from his school since the Kansas City Chiefs picked running back Herman Heard in the third round in 1984.

"I was the late bloomer," Jensen said Sunday afternoon in a telephone interview from Colorado. "Big schools didn't want to take a risk on me. I went down to Pueblo, and the rest is history."

Jensen is another example of the Ravens' recent drafting trend of investing a significant amount of resources into scouting smaller colleges. A year ago, the Ravens drafted three players from non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools: Delaware center Gino Gradkowski, South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson and Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson.

Four of their 10 draft picks this year hail from smaller schools: third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams from Division II Missouri Southern; fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk from Harvard in the Ivy League; Jensen, who played in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference; and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette from Elon out of the Southern Conference.

The reasons behind the Ravens' affinity for smaller school players stems from their desire to not overlook talent regardless of level. Unlike many of their NFL colleagues, the Super Bowl champions don't subscribe to any scouting services and require their scouts to dig harder to evaluate prospects at every school in their assigned area.

"I think scouting, in general, has gotten better across the league," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "It has forced us to adapt. We've had to increase the pool of players. Where we would probably have always just drafted Pac-12, Big 10 and SEC guys, we have looked at these smaller school guys, because players will come, as we've seen, from every area, every division, every part of the country.

"We've challenged our scouts to get more information, and to investigate every possible player to give us an advantage. I think our scouts have done a good job of doing that."

Five years ago, the Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco out of Delaware in the first round. In March, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was signed to a $120.6 million contract.

This fall, Flacco will take snaps this fall from another former Blue Hen in Gradkowski.

Some of it comes back to the investment Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti puts into the scouting department in terms of a travel budget for scouts and coaches to journey across the country to find players. There is no salary cap for scouting players.

"This goes to Steve Bisciotti and what he's allowed us to do as a personnel staff to be able to maintain as many guys as we have on our staff," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Our coverage is getting better because of the staff that we have, starting with our young guys all the way up to [director of college scouting] Joe [Hortiz] and Eric."

During the 2009 draft, the Ravens picked cornerback Lardarius Webb in the third round out of Nicholls State. Last year, they signed him to a $50 million contract.

Webb's success along with Flacco has made the Ravens less hesitant to go with players from smaller colleges. The Ravens also believe in the adage that an overlooked football player is typically a hungry football player intent on working hard to improve.

"For a long time we didn't draft any small school guys, or a very, very few," DeCosta said. "In the last couple of years we have drafted more. I think one of the reasons is because we really draft best available player. Honestly, I know it sounds crazy, but just about every single one of these picks was the highest-rated guy on the list, and coincidentally, some of these guys were small school guys."

The Ravens put a lot of time looking into Jensen, who will compete with Gradkowski at center and also play offensive guard after playing offensive tackle in college.

Run-game coordinator Juan Castillo went to Pueblo to work out Jensen privately, and the Ravens flew Jensen in for a visit at team headquarters earlier this month.

"A great organization like Baltimore is going to find the players who they want and think they can develop into great players," Jensen said. "In talking with Juan, his background as a Division II coach was a big influence on that aspect."

Besides visiting the Ravens, Jensen also visited the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and the Seattle Seahawks. He conducted private workouts for the Arizona Cardinals, Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, Patriots and Dallas Cowboys in Colorado.

Jensen didn't disappoint scouts, running the 40-yard dash in 5.28 seconds and bench pressing 225 pounds 30 times.

"He's a good athlete," Hortiz said of Jensen. "Good bender, gets to the second level. He can run, smart kid and tough kid."

One of the things the Ravens like about Jensen is his hard-nosed approach to the game, which sounds a lot like how Ravens Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda plays football.

"I like to consider myself a nasty player who likes to get down and dirty," Jensen said. "I don't necessarily want to hurt people, but I do consider myself kind of a sneaky, dirty player. I think that's something they like."

Jensen arrives with plenty of motivation to justify the Ravens' faith in him. After his days of relative obscurity in Colorado, Jensen is now joining a much bigger stage.

"I still have a lot to prove to step up to that competition and perform to the best of my ability," Jensen said. "I have that little chip on my shoulder because some guys may look at me as a small-school guy and think, 'He hasn't earned his way or proven he can play with the best.' That motivates me that much more."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

Ravens' small-school players

The Ravens don't ignore players from smaller colleges and universities. They are willing to invest drafts picks and, in the case of quarterback Joe Flacco, a lot of money. They signed the former Delaware standout to a $120.6 million contract in March. Here's a look at the Super Bowl champions' rookie draft picks from smaller schools as well as the current players on the roster:

2013 rookie draft picks: Defensive tackle Brandon Williams (third round, Missouri Southern); Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard); Offensive lineman Ryan Jensen (Colorado State-Pueblo); Wide receiver Aaron Mellette (Elon).

Veterans: Linebacker D.J. Bryant (James Madison); Linebacker Nigel Carr (Alabama State); Quarterback Joe Flacco (Delaware); Center Gino Gradkowski (Delaware); Cornerback Corey Graham (New Hampshire); Linebacker Adrian Hamilton (Prairie View A&M); Offensive lineman Ramon Harewood (Morehouse); Safety James Ihedigbo (Massachusetts); Cornerback Asa Jackson (Cal Poly); Wide receiver Jacoby Jones (Lane College); Safety Anthony Levine (Tennessee State); Offensive tackle David Mims (Virginia Union); Cornerback Lardarius Webb (Nicholls State).

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