Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh connection gives Ravens a 'real advantage' with deep Michigan draft class

On Oct. 3, 2015, two days after the Ravens defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a "Thursday Night Football" game, John Harbaugh went to see his brother.

He had the Saturday off, and they met in College Park. They hung out for an afternoon, John and Jim together again, like old times. The wind was stiff and the rain fell softly and sporadically, so John wore a light coat and a hat. Both were blue, with a maize accent on the “M” logo branded across each.

Were it not for Jim’s trademark khakis — John was in blue jeans — and the headset he wore on the sideline, they would have been virtually indistinguishable to the tens of thousands who watched Jim’s Michigan football team shut out Maryland. John did not coach, but his presence was not ornamental, either; he offered in-game input to Jim, ran to the Wolverines locker room at halftime by his brother’s side, even sang the school fight song afterward.

It was a day that merited a page in the Harbaugh family photo album and offered a window into a relationship between coaches that, as leaders of an NFL team and one of college football’s most talent-rich programs, is uncommonly close. Michigan could challenge the all-time record for the number of players from one school taken in the NFL draft, which starts Thursday in Philadelphia. The Ravens have seven picks to spend, including the No. 16 overall.

If knowledge is power, which draft-day war room is better equipped to assess the pack of Wolverines prospects than the one whose coach is so connected, he got a firsthand look at over a dozen of them two seasons ago?

“All they do is talk ball, and obviously, John's got an advantage with any Michigan player because Jim's going to give him everything. Everything, including the warts,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a teleconference Friday. “John's got a real advantage there.”

The pipeline of players from Ann Arbor to Baltimore is still under construction. On the Ravens’ roster, Michigan, with its winged football helmet and blue-blood pedigree, can claim as many alumni as Delaware (quarterback Joe Flacco and tight end Nick Boyle). The Blue Hens have winged helmets, too, but also membership in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.

Defensive tackle Willie Henry, a fourth-round pick in 2016, was the first Wolverines player the Ravens have drafted since Jim Harbaugh was named coach in 2015. Outside linebacker Brennen Beyer has spent parts of the past two seasons with the Ravens after going undrafted out of Michigan in 2015.

They could have company as soon as Friday. The Ravens have been linked to safety Jabrill Peppers and defensive end Taco Charlton, both first-round talents. And if not them, there are maybe as many as 17 others to monitor Friday, Saturday and during the undrafted-free-agent sweepstakes.

“I think it says a lot about the program,” John Harbaugh said in March at the NFL scouting combine. “It says a lot about Jim. I think he did a great job, and his staff, developing those players.”

He added: “Do I talk to Jim about those guys? Yeah. I have a pretty good handle on all of those guys based on what Jim thinks of those guys.”

Among Michigan’s bumper crop of prospects are players at positions of need for the Ravens. But in the NFL, big-board construction is a collaborative process: Prospects are ordered and reordered after insights from the lowest-level scouts to the highest-ranking front-office officials to John Harbaugh himself are considered.

Even the top players available can get dinged for a lack of need or fit. Mayock said the dynamic Peppers is “better in the box than he is deep,” and the Ravens already have Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson at safety. Charlton is a pass-rushing threat, but more so in a 4-3 defensive alignment. “That's not really what Baltimore does,” Mayock said.

The Ravens might feel the same. And if they’re unsure, well, they can just have their coach call his brother. It’s part of doing business, and business can be personal: General manager Ozzie Newsome told the Talk of Fame Network last month that because of his ties to Alabama and close relationship with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, “I do have an intimate knowledge of the players there.”

“If you can get a piece of information that nobody else gets, then you have an advantage,” Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said this month. “Wherever it is, if you’re getting information that nobody else is getting, it’s like insider training. It’s not much different. It’s not illegal in the NFL. If you get information that nobody else is getting to help you make decisions, then I think you have to try and take advantage of it.”

In other words, the Ravens might know better than 31 other NFL teams how limiting Wolverines All-America cornerback Jourdan Lewis’ slight frame (5 feet 10, 188 pounds) could be against the bigger and stronger receivers of the NFL. Or where defensive lineman Chris Wormley would be best suited along the Ravens’ line, if at all. Or why offensive tackle Erik Magnuson, a first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection, might make a 53-man roster despite not making it to the scouting combine’s 330-player invite list.

Every pick will be made to fortify the Ravens' depth chart, to help them return to the playoffs. If it just so happens that one or two hail from Michigan, neither Harbaugh will be complaining. In 2004, Ohio State had 14 players taken in the draft, the most ever. And it doesn’t take a Michigan Man to understand why breaking that record would be significant.