The Ravens devote a considerable amount of resources to scouting small-school draft prospects.
It's a commitment that six years ago yielded eventual Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player Joe Flacco from Delaware in the first round. The Ravens signed the quarterback to a $120.6 million contract last year.
Four of the Ravens' 10 draft selections last year were from smaller schools, including third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams from Division II Missouri Southern, fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk from Harvard of the Ivy League, sixth-round center Ryan Jensen from Division II Colorado State Pueblo from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette from Elon out of the Southern Conference.
Two years ago, the Ravens drafted Delaware center Gino Gradkowski, South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson, who was cut last year following a suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy, and Cal-Poly cornerback Asa Jackson.
"I think, in general, scouting has gotten better across the league," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "Teams are doing better jobs, so we’ve tried to find value by more closely looking at small-school players. Our scouts do a great job of going out there and evaluating those guys. We use a lot of resources to go into those schools, getting to know the coaches, and watching the players.
"Obviously, the biggest challenge would be level of competition. How does that player play? How is he going to play against better players? Is he going to be able to adjust? All-Star games are a nice way of seeing that play out.
"So, we get the chance to see a small-school guy at the Senior Bowl, you get a chance to see him at the Combine to compare against the big-school guys. That’s always a big challenge. The other thing is, ‘How are players going to get better?’
"At small schools, sometimes they don’t have the luxury of having a nice weight room, nutritional programs or support staff. We feel like sometimes these guys come into our facility, our building, with our coaches and our doctors and trainers, and get better quickly because they have the advantage of all these new things."
Besides Flacco, several other veterans on the Ravens roster come from smaller schools.
That includes inebacker D.J. Bryant (James Madison), linebacker Adrian Hamilton (Prairie View A&M), offensive tackle David Mims (Virginia Union), wide receiver Jacoby Jones (Lane College), safety Anthony Levine (Tennessee State), cornerback Lardarius Webb (Nicholls State), quarterback Nick Stephens (Tarleton State), Gerrard Sheppard (Towson), tight end Nathan Overbay (Eastern Washington), safety Jeromy Miles (Massachusetts) and defensive tackle Cody Larsen (Southern Utah),
"A lot of good small-school players have come here," DeCosta said. "We got Joe Flacco, Lardarius Webb [from small schools]. We had [former Ravens cornerback] Cary Williams [Washburn], who had been a good player with us in the past. We’ve had a lot of small-school players.
"Gino Gradkowski started 16 games for us last year at center. We believe in it. We look at all players across the board, regardless of level of competition, division or conference, and pick the best players.”