General managers, pro personnel directors and scouts never like to stick their chests out when rookies make big plays, but there were a lot of happy people in the Ravens' front office yesterday.
One day after smacking around the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome, the Ravens deserved to gloat because a late-round draft pick and an undrafted free agent turned in two of the game's biggest plays in the 35-22 victory. Rookie cornerback Ronnie Prude, a free agent out of LSU, returned an interception of Drew Brees 12 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Rookie safety Dawan Landry, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, returned another interception of Brees 12 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter that officially made the game a rout, and it left us with a recurring question.
Where do the Ravens keep getting these guys? The Ravens built this franchise on first-round picks like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks, Chris McAlister and Todd Heap. But they've won a lot of games surrounding them with late-round draft choices like Adalius Thomas, Landry and undrafted free agents such as Bart Scott, Mike Flynn, Priest Holmes, Will Demps and Maake Kemoeatu.
"After the first couple of years, we didn't think we did very well in rounds 5 through 7," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We decided to go with the philosophy that once we got into those rounds, we were going to bring in guys who could run and were tough. If nothing else, they could be on special teams."
Demps, who played for the Ravens from 2002 to 2005 and is now with the New York Giants, is tough, and so are Scott and Flynn. Holmes could run, and so can return specialist B.J. Sams, who signed with the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent out of McNeese State. Thomas, a sixth-round pick, is both. The Ravens have a current crop of rookies who fit the mold in one way or another.
Rookie tight end Quinn Sypniewski has been strong in run-blocking. Punter Sam Koch is averaging 43.8 yards and has delivered two vicious hits on punt returners. Tough punter, tough guy. Prude has played extensively on special teams and has two interceptions while playing in nickel and dime coverage this season.
And then there is Landry. He is a thick 6 feet, 220 pounds and has no fear. He's like having an extra linebacker at the line of scrimmage. Landry is fifth on the team in tackles with 37.
"Obviously, we were looking for a safety," Newsome said. "You get to a point where Eric [DeCosta, director of college scouting] and I just ask, 'Who is the best football player available?' You have to forget all the other things you measure and weigh. Within our defense, if you do your job, you've got a chance to raise your game because there are so many other good players around you. Dawan was the best football player available."
It all sounds so simple, but it isn't that easy. The Ravens are one of three or four NFL teams that don't belong to the two major scouting combines. If a player is draft-eligible - whether from Division I, II or III and regardless of his location - DeCosta and Newsome require their scouts to prepare a report.
Newsome also looks over the number of visits a player takes to NFL teams before the draft. If he takes a lot, he's going to be drafted, Newsome figures. If not, he'll either go in the late rounds or not at all.
There's a lot of paperwork, but apparently the method is paying off. Former Ravens running back Chester Taylor was a sixth-round pick. Guard Brian Rimpf was a seventh-round choice, and starting right offensive tackle Tony Pashos was a fifth-round selection.
The Ravens prefer the individual approach to the scouting combines because they can establish relationships. At some point, those relationships can sway a rookie free agent either to join the Ravens or to sign with another team. Take Holmes, for example. He was a free agent coming out of the University of Texas. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers also wanted Holmes, but he chose Baltimore after some coaxing from Ravens officials.
It was former special teams coach Gary Zauner, after numerous workouts with Demps, who persuaded the Ravens to aggressively pursue Demps in free agency. Prude came highly recommended by Ravens national scout Lionel Vital. Playing at LSU, where Nick Saban was the coach before moving to the Miami Dolphins last season, didn't hurt.
"Lionel did a great job of recruiting Prude," Newsome said. "He told him that we were looking for a nickel back, and that if he came in and played well, he had a chance to win the job. Plus, any corner that has ever played under Nick Saban is going to be very fundamentally sound."
The Ravens screen late-round draft picks and free agents just as much as potential top picks. They hold workouts on campus and question everybody from the water boy to the trainer to the equipment manager. The Ravens don't offer big signing bonuses to those players, but they have a strong reputation in the college ranks. If the Ravens are willing to take a chance with a long shot, he has a legitimate chance of making the team.
"Our free-agent results have been the combination of our coaches and scouts working together recruiting those kids," Newsome said. "I think they still have that college coach in them where they enjoy going on the road, meeting kids and selling them on our team. They know their voices are going to be heard. Those players know if we're contacting them, then they have a very good chance of making the 53-man roster."
Go to www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral for Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog.