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Undrafted rookies carry equal weight with the Ravens

As the final round of the 2013 draft began in April and Matt Furstenburg agonized over where his NFL career would begin, the former Maryland tight end got a phone call that eased some of his anxiety.

So many people — from friends and former teammates to potential future employers — had already contacted him, but the voice on the other end made this call unique.

"John Harbaugh called me and said, 'We have to take a cornerback [here], but we want you," recalled Furstenburg, a three-year starter for the Terps who was one of eight undrafted free agents that survived Sunday's roster cuts. The Ravens currently have 77 players on their roster and they’ll need to get down to 75 on Tuesday and be at 53 on Aug. 31. "That was awesome. He was the only head coach that called."

Like the other undrafted free agents in camp, Furstenburg is bidding to survive Tuesday's roster cut and get one step closer to the Ravens' 53-man roster.

The Ravens' front office has earned plenty of praise for its decisions during the draft, but it is also in the minutes after the final pick has been made, a period that assistant general manager Eric DeCosta equated to a "feeding frenzy," when the organization has historically done some of its best work.

Few organizations have unearthed as many impact undrafted free agents as the Ravens have, and team officials take the process so seriously that they guard their recruiting methods almost as aggressively as their weekly game plans.

"I don't want to compare it to Coke's secret recipe, but we compare it to Coke's secret recipe," DeCosta said. "We try to treat the process as one of the most competitive things that we do all year. Besides the games [themselves], undrafted free agency is when you're competing against the other 31 teams for a very small amount of players with a very small amount of money. … For us, it's critically important."

Just how important?

Scan a box score from the Ravens' 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Kicker Justin Tucker made both of his field-goal attempts, all four of his extra points and booted four touchbacks. Dannell Ellerbe started at weak-side linebacker and had a team-leading nine tackles and a crucial quarterback pressure on Colin Kaepernick's final incompletion of the Ravens' decisive goal-line stand. Ma'ake Kemoeatu started at nose tackle while Albert McClellan and Josh Bynes played key roles on special teams. It was Bynes' tackle of returner Ted Ginn Jr. as time expired that secured the franchise's second Super Bowl title.

All five of those players initially signed with the Ravens as undrafted free agents, persevered through long odds to make the roster and eventually became key contributors. It's a familiar storyline for the Ravens, who have seen some of their college free agents go on to make Pro Bowls (Priest Holmes and Bart Scott) or become postseason heroes (Tucker and Ellerbe). Others, like center Mike Flynn, inside linebacker Jameel McClain and safety Will Demps, developed into reliable starters over guys who were drafted and paid much more money.

"The reason they've been successful is they work at it and they have a history and a tradition," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of college scouting from 1996 to 2002, and their director of player personnel in 2003 and 2004. "Really from the moment we got to Baltimore, we put a lot of emphasis on college free agents. I think the Ravens have always approached it like it's the eighth round of the draft and their scouts take great pride in unearthing a player or two. If you can get one of those players on your team, the impact of it on the salary cap is really significant."

The Ravens' current group of undrafted free agents includes wide receiver Marlon Brown, who has quickly moved up the depth chart after his senior season at Georgia was marred by a knee injury; Furstenburg, who is battling with veteran Billy Bajema for the third tight-end spot; and linebacker Brandon Copeland, a former Gilman standout who is getting a shot with his hometown team.

At least one undrafted free agent has made the Ravens' opening-game roster in all five seasons under Harbaugh and eight total have survived final cuts during that span.

"As we go back and look at some of the significant players that have really developed over the years, it really shows you how important the process is," said DeCosta, who credited the work of scouts Mark Azevedo, Ian Cunningham and Joe Douglas, who coordinates the undrafted free-agent signing process. "We plan as much for undrafted free agency quite honestly as we do for the draft. We've learned over the years that you simply have to invest a lot of time in undrafted free agency to make sure it bears fruit. We tweak things every year. We try to be as innovative as we can be with our approach, and we think it works well. We'll continue to try and stay ahead of the curve to beat the other teams because we know the other teams are trying to beat us."

Team officials don't discuss their recruiting methods, though DeCosta acknowledged that the Ravens "try to do things that nobody else is doing and be as aggressive as we can while staying within [league] rules."

What is clear is that the Ravens treat it as a several-month process, identifying players early who might not get drafted and then building relationships with them in the lead-up to the draft. That process includes the traditional interviews, along with countless phone calls and text messages from Harbaugh and position coaches in the days before and during the draft.

"[Run-game coordinator Juan Castillo] was pretty aggressive," said Ravens rookie offensive tackle J.J. Unga, who played college ball at Midwestern State. "He had been calling since as early as February. Even during the draft, every day after every round. Right before the seventh round was gone, he was already on the phone telling me, 'Even if we don't pick you, we're still interested and want you to come here.' It was automatic if they gave me an opportunity, and they did."

DeCosta believes that the relationships the coaches and scouts build with the prospects is one of the most important factors in recruiting college free agents. The Ravens also have plenty to sell. They train in the state-of-the-art Under Armour Performance Center. Their roster is dotted with perennial Pro Bowl selections. They have qualified for the playoffs five straight years and in nine of the past 13 seasons, winning two Super Bowls.

Then, there's the fact that they annually give free agents an opportunity. Holmes signed with the Ravens in 1997 after he went undrafted out of the University of Texas. He rushed for 2,102 yards in four seasons in Baltimore before going to Kansas City, where he became one of the NFL's best backs. Scott played in every game in his rookie season in 2002.

Tucker had a solid career at Texas, but he initially found no NFL kicking jobs waiting. The Ravens eventually signed him after a tryout, and he beat out Billy Cundiff to make the team.

"Once you get a Priest Holmes, once you get a Bart Scott; once you get a Justin Tucker, you can convince a player that it isn't lip service," Savage said. "You're going to get a chance to win a role on our roster. I think a lot of time, the free agents that sign with Baltimore feel like they have something to look up to."

Ellerbe, who was undrafted out of Georgia, signed with the Ravens one year after McClain, another inside linebacker, made the team as a college free agent. Ellerbe got a $2,000 signing bonus and a $310,000 base salary. To put that in perspective, the Ravens' second-round pick that same year, outside linebacker Paul Kruger, got a $1 million signing bonus.

Less than five years later, Ellerbe left the Ravens as a free agent, agreeing to a five-year, $35 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens were sorry to see him go, but like with so many other undrafted free agents, they had already reaped the financial and football benefits of Ellerbe's being with the team.

DeCosta joked that guys like Ellerbe are on the "All-Moriarty team," a reference to senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, who manages the team's salary cap.

"Those are the kinds of players that really help the salary cap in the short term, and you get a bonus because you're getting players that end up being really good for you and work fairly cheaply," DeCosta said. "It helps but what really helps is when you find a guy that you have low expectations for who ends up being a really good player who can help you win some games. That's worth really any amount of money. If the guy is a productive player for us, that's really more important than anything else."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

 

Baltimore Sun reporters Aaron Wilson and Matt Vensel contributed to this article.

Eight standout undrafted free agents

Lauded for their success in the draft, the Ravens have also developed a reputation for their ability to sign quality undrafted free agents. Below are eight who stand out:

 

PlayerPos.Years with RavensSkinnyWill DempsS2002-2005Started four seasons alongside Ed Reed and had four interceptions and 3.5 sacksDannell EllerbeLB2009-2012Parlayed a strong 2012 season with Ravens into a five-year, $35 million contract with the Miami DolphinsMike FlynnC1998-2007The starting center on the 2000 Super Bowl champions, Flynn was a key member of the offensive line for a decadePriest HolmesRB1997-2000Started 19 games over four seasons for the Ravens but became one of the NFL's best backs after leaving for Kansas CityJameel McClainLB2008-presentBefore suffering significant spinal-cord injury, he started 44 games over the past three seasons for RavensAlan RicardFB2001-2005For three consecutive seasons, he started every game for Ravens while serving as lead blocker for Jamal LewisBart ScottLB2002-2008The "Mad Backer" started 58 games in seven seasons in Baltimore and made the Pro Bowl in 2006Justin TuckerK2012-presentBeat out Billy Cundiff last training camp and then converted 30 of 33 field-goal attempts, including two game-winners

Best of the rest: LB Josh Bynes (2011-present), DL Marques Douglas (2001-2004, 2008), DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu (2002-2005, 2012), LB Albert McClellan (2010-present), KR B.J. Sams (2004-2007), WR Deonte Thompson (2012-present)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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