Talent search

The Baltimore Sun

When the Ravens make their first-round pick in next weekend's NFL draft, most of the decision will be based on the work done by the scouts and coaches traveling all over the country.

Another factor will be based on the 25-mile drive from the airport to Ravens headquarters.

When the Ravens bring in draft prospects for visits, they give them "van grades" for how they act on the ride - when the players think no one is watching.

But the scouting assistants who shuttle players back and forth certainly are. They take mental notes on everything, from how the players treat them as drivers to how they act while on the cell phone.

"There are a couple of players we avoid every year because of the way they conducted themselves," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "Everything means something in the end result."

The reason why the Ravens stand above most teams on draft day is because of this type of legwork done by the organization.

Instead of relying on outside resources like a majority of the league, the Ravens make their decisions based on information solely obtained by those within the team.

The Ravens' reports on college prospects are filled with conversations scouts have had with college trainers, observations made by their coaching staff on a player's pro day workout and impressions about character from face-to-face interviews to those unsuspecting trips from the airport.

This system has produced some of the best drafts over the past decade, and it doesn't matter if the Ravens are drafting in the top 10 or bottom 10 (like they're doing this season).

The Ravens have built their reputation by selecting future Hall of Famers in the first round (offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis) and an All-Pro player in the sixth round (linebacker Adalius Thomas).

They have consistently drafted Pro Bowl players at the top of the first round (linebackers Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs and cornerback Chris McAlister) as well as finding elite players at the bottom of it (safety Ed Reed and tight end Todd Heap).

"I put the Ravens at the highest end of the NFL with New England, Philadelphia and San Diego over the last several years," said Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's draft expert. "[Ravens general manager] Ozzie Newsome and his staff have done a terrific job."

The Ravens are different from most NFL teams because they don't subscribe to any psychological testing. Rather than using a doctor's report, the team builds its own profile of a player through interviews.

They are also one of the few teams - the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders are the others - that aren't a part of the two major scouting services.

Teams pay Blesto and National Football Scouting about $100,000 as a means of collecting basic data (physical measurements, timings, physical test results, background information and a brief discussion of football playing ability) on prospects.

The Ravens' decision to remain independent came from their days as the Cleveland Browns, when coach Bill Belichick and executive Ernie Accorsi opted to do so.

"We felt like we could take the money we were paying the combine and put additional scouts on the road, making them more accountable for all the players that are draft eligible," Newsome said. "It means they have to do more work going in, which is OK with us."

Starting them young

The Ravens' scouting expertise comes from their 20-20 vision, so to speak.

Unlike teams that replace scouts by hiring replacements elsewhere, the Ravens groom theirs in the "20-20 club." The Ravens hire 20-year-old college graduates for $20,000 a year as entry-level assistants who organize files, pick up players from the airport and learn how to identify the players the team wants.

"They spend the first couple of years grading our players and the players in the league," Newsome said. "Now, they have a picture of the players on this team and you can take that picture to any college campus."

After a couple of years, the Ravens will promote productive assistants to area scouts.

Of the Ravens' nine current talent evaluators (five area scouts, two national scouts and two pro personnel directors), seven have followed this path in the organization. It took DeCosta only 10 years to go from the 20-20 club to head of the Ravens' college scouting department.

"When Ozzie hired me, he told me that I was going to learn everything about this organization from soup to nuts," DeCosta said, "and I have."

Key to success

Going from a fan to having a seat inside the draft room, owner Steve Bisciotti has learned the Ravens' system without having a football background.

And Bisciotti believes he knows the Ravens' key to success in the draft.

"Ozzie is the one constant," Bisciotti said. "So until proven otherwise, Ozzie is the reason why we've been so successful."

Since they moved to Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens have gone through numerous scouts (only George Kokinis and Vincent Newsome have remained) and have even changed college scouting directors, when DeCosta replaced Phil Savage.

The one constant has been Newsome, who has manned 11 drafts that have produced 10 Pro Bowl players.

Newsome depends on his eye for talent - he spends his days and weekends watching film of draft prospects - as well as his ears, finding a consensus on picks after listening to varying opinions from scouts and coaches.

"The genius of Ozzie is that he is able to trust his people," DeCosta said. "That's a hard thing to do when you're making a decision that can affect your job and the well-being of a franchise for years to come. You'll be hard-pressed to find a lot of other general managers who take that same approach."

Fitting the mold

The key to drafting is not about selecting the best player. It's about selecting the best player for your team.

The only way a team can do that is if the scouts work with the coaching staff, which is not always the case around the league.

When the Ravens' scouts find players that they like, they'll ask the coaches to visit them to see if he will fit into the system.

This wasn't always the way with the Ravens. There were times when some coaches (who are no longer with the team) butted heads with the scouts.

"The chemistry in this organization between the coaching staff and the scouts is very unusual," DeCosta said. "We're co-workers and friends. We understand each other."

As part of the Ravens' preparation for the draft, DeCosta holds three types of meetings.

He first talks with the scouts one-on-one to get their top prospects. Then, the scouts discuss players in a meeting that the coaches come in and observe. The final meeting is one where the scouts and coaches hash out their opinions.

"I have to believe this is the best group of coaches and scouts in terms of evaluating players and predicting future performance," DeCosta said. "That's our success in a nutshell."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.

Preview week

Beginning today, The Sun will feature expanded daily Ravens and NFL coverage leading up to next weekend's draft.

Coming tomorrow

The Ravens could select a cornerback with their first pick. A look at who might be available at No. 29.

Josh Wilson continues Maryland's legacy of producing NFL defensive backs.

Online

Visit baltimoresun.com next weekend for Ken Murray's pick-by-pick analysis of the first round, and Bill Ordine's two-day draft blog.

First-round fortune

A look at the Ravens' success in the first round, no matter where they are drafting:

1996, 4th pick

Jonathan Ogden, OT: Franchise's first pick is perhaps best lineman of his generation

1996, 26th

Ray Lewis, LB: Super Bowl MVP and two-time NFL Defensive MVP.

1997, 4th

Peter Boulware, LB: Finished as Ravens' all-time leader in sacks.

1998, 10th

Duane Starks, CB: Never a premier corner but shut down receivers in 2000 playoffs.

1999, 10th

Chris McAlister, CB: Can be an elite defender when he wants to be.

2000, 5th

Jamal Lewis, RB: Team's all-time leading rusher gained 2,066 yards in 2003.

2000, 10th

Travis Taylor, WR: A big disappointment but still left as all-time leading receiver.

2001, 31st

Todd Heap, TE: One of the top tight ends in the game.

2002, 24th

Ed Reed, FS: 2004 NFL Defensive MVP and three-time Pro Bowl performer.

2003, 10th

Terrell Suggs, LB: Two-time Pro Bowl player is among top pass rushers in NFL.

2003, 19th

Kyle Boller, QB: Struggled with consistency despite going 18-16 as a starter.

2005, 22nd

Mark Clayton, WR: Has more catches (111) than any first-round receiver of this draft

2006, 12th

Haloti Ngata, DT: Ravens believe it's only a matter of time before he reaches Pro Bowl.

JAMISON HENSLEY

A look at the Ravens' scouting department

Name Position Age Yr. w/Ravens Skinny

Eric DeCosta Dir. of college scouting 36 12th One of Sporting News' top young stars in sports

George Kokinis Dir. of pro personnel 40 12th Oversees free agency and advance scouting during season

Vince Newsome Ast. dir. of pro personnel 46 12th Former scout credited with selections of Ogden, Heap, McAlister

Joe Hortiz National scout 31 10th Covers schools across country, manages salary cap

Lionel Vital National scout 43 4th Rejoined Ravens after spending five years with Patriots

Chad Alexander Midwest area scout 32 9th Scouts Big Ten, Conference USA and some in Big 12

Joe Douglas Northeast area scout 30 8th Scouts Big East, ACC, Atlantic 10 and Ivy League

Daniel Jeremiah West area scout 29 5th Four draft picks came from his area in '06, including Haloti Ngata.

Andy Weidl West area scout 32 3rd Scouts schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah

Jeremiah Washburn Southwest area scout 29 5th Four draft picks came from his area in '06, including Chris Chester.

JAMISON HENSLEY

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