Although Sunday’s Super Bowl marks the first trip the Baltimore Ravens have made to the big game in 12 years, just about every organization in football looks at what the Ravens have accomplished this century with a jealous eye. Since the beginning of the 2000 season, the Ravens have gone 126-82, a figure topped by just four NFL teams. They’ve had nine trips to the playoffs during that time, surpassed in the AFC only by the Colts and Patriots. And while those two teams hit the quarterback lottery (in dramatically different ways), the Ravens have spent virtually that entire time frame with a question mark at the game’s most important position. It’s a testament to just how impressive the Baltimore defense has been over that time, of course, but Baltimore’s consistent success in the 21st century starts with the brilliant work done by their front office, as led by general manager1 Ozzie Newsome.
Newsome’s initial title when he took over control of the front office was vice-president of player personnel.
In prior Grantland columns, I’ve tracked the history of work produced by less-successful general managers and found that they usually break down into a few obvious trends and blind spots that prevent them and their teams from advancing further. I wanted to research Newsome’s history to try to see what trends and decision-making styles marked his tenure with the Ravens, in the hopes of finding some best practices to recommend to the league’s weaker franchises. In doing so, though, I found that Newsome doesn’t really have the sort of obvious affectations that stood out with the lesser GMs. In fact, it’s the opposite: Newsome’s tenure is defined by how many different ways the Ravens try to acquire talent and improve their organization. They do some things that are absolutely worth noting, but in the long run, they get the most important thing right: The Ravens truly understand how valuing players has to work in tandem with evaluating players.
Go back to their selection of Joe Flacco in the first round of the 2008 draft, one that came after a rare disappointing season for the Ravens, who had the eighth pick in the first round. As Judy Battista wrote the following year, the Ravens loved Flacco and wanted to take him, but graded him out as a player worth taking toward the end of the first round. Despite the undeniable pressure to take the guy they wanted at their biggest position of need when he was available with the eighth pick, the Ravens traded down to the 26th pick2 and acquired two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder. Baltimore was prepared to wait until their pick came up at 26 to draft Flacco, but owner Steve Bisciotti pleaded long enough with Newsome and got him to move up to the 18th pick by trading one of the third-round picks he had just gotten and a sixth-round pick. In the end, Baltimore got their guy and a pair of midround draft picks to improve their defensive depth. A bad organization would have been terrified of the unknown, taken Flacco eighth, and lost out on the opportunity to acquire another meaningful contributor or two in the process while overdrafting a player because he was at a position of need. That simply doesn’t fly in Baltimore.
The team who traded up to the eighth slot? The Jacksonville Jaguars, who acquired the pick in one of their frequent draft-day trade-ups to acquire pass rusher Derrick Harvey. Harvey managed only eight sacks in three seasons with the Jaguars before being let go. More on the Jaguars and their general manager at the time, Gene Smith, here.
Go back further. Start with Newsome’s first draft, when he had one of the best first rounds in league history. During Bill Belichick’s last draft with the Browns in 1995, he made what would be a classic Belichickian draft-day move: He traded a good draft pick now for a premium haul later, by dealing the 10th overall pick to the 49ers for the 30th overall pick in that year’s draft, third- and fourth-round picks, and San Francisco’s first-round pick in the 1996 draft. That left Newsome — who studied under Belichick after his Hall of Fame career ended and took over the front office when the team moved to Baltimore — two first-round picks to work with, selections nos. 4 and 26. All he came away with was two Hall of Famers. Newsome resisted the urge to take halfback Lawrence Phillips with the fourth overall pick and instead selected Jonathan Ogden, who moved to left tackle after his rookie season and anchored the Baltimore line for the next 11 seasons. Then, with the 26th pick, he found a leader for his defense who stuck around for quite a while: Miami middle linebacker Ray Lewis. The only other draft class from that decade that is likely to produce two Hall of Fame players would be that of the 1995 Buccaneers, who took Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks with their first two picks. Think about that for a second: Newsome took will-be Hall of Famers with his very first two decisions on draft day. Can you drop the mic after a draft pick?
As good as Ogden was, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Newsome’s two most memorable draft picks were Lewis and Ed Reed, who share plenty of similarities. Obviously, they’re both prospects out of The U, where they were defensive leaders and four-year starters. They’re both athletically gifted, but even when they were younger, they each seemed to be blessed with preternatural instincts for breaking down plays and knowing what the offense is going to do before they actually do it.
It’s easy to forget in 2013 that neither pick was a sure thing. There were doubts that Reed would go in the first round because he played the relatively less valuable position of safety, while Miami cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph were expected to go ahead of him in the first round. Buchanon was selected 17th, seven picks ahead of Reed, who went to the Ravens at 24th, three picks ahead of Rumph. Scouts raved about Reed’s instinctiveness and production at school, but wondered about his size and his inconsistency as a tackler. Lewis had a roughly similar reputation; Mel Kiper’s 1996 Draft Report notes that Lewis “became a leader of the Hurricane football team on and off the field” while pointing out his ability to pursue and tackle through trash, speed, and instincts. On the other hand, Kiper also noted that Lewis was “not the type who will stuff inside running lanes by taking on a 300 pound guard,” adding, “Lewis prefers more of a finesse game, although no-one will ever question his toughness or determination to get to the ball-carrier.”3
In bringing up Kiper’s criticism of Lewis there, I also want to point out that I’m not suggesting Kiper was right or wrong to bring that up about Lewis or that it’s a reflection on Mel, whom I really like; if Kiper wrote that, I suspect that many scouts saw the same thing on film. I’m merely pointing out that the scouting reports and draft grades on players who seem almost flawless, Hall of Fame–caliber guys like Lewis and Reed, aren’t as glossy as hindsight might make it seem. (Kiper also ranked Lewis as the best player at his position and put him 26th on the print version of what would now be known as his Big Board, which is exactly where Lewis came off the board in real life. I don’t mess with Mel Kiper.)
Whenever you hear about a player approaching the top 10 or even the top five in the draft at middle linebacker or safety, you’ll often hear their skills and unique talents compared to guys like Lewis or Reed, despite the fact that Lewis and Reed themselves weren’t drafted anywhere near that high. It speaks to both how the league values middle linebackers and safeties and how effective Newsome and his team were at scouting talent. Lewis and Reed were taken right around the point at which they were expected to come off the board, but instead of reaching for a player at a sexier position or one at a more pressing position of need, Newsome instead went for the best available player on his board, trusting that the talent would prove to be more important than the positional value. Obviously, he was right.
What separates Newsome from Belichick, though, is how much more likely he is to be aggressive and trade up for a particular player on draft day, even if it costs him picks. That hasn’t always worked out. Remember that 1996 draft that started off with two Hall of Fame picks in the first round? Newsome had a player targeted in the second round and went after him by dealing three midround selections to move up to the 55th pick. That player? DeRon Jenkins, who didn’t live up to expectations as an occasional starter at cornerback. In 2003, Newsome grabbed Terrell Suggs with the 10th overall pick in the draft, but nine picks later, he decided to deal back into the draft and pick up his quarterback of the future. He sent New England his second-rounder and his first-round pick in the 2004 draft to pick up Kyle Boller.4 Boller’s failure to develop eventually stalled the organization and forced it into a 6-10 season in 2005. It was Newsome’s worst pick, but his abilities outside of those ill-fated moves have always been enough to excuse those sorts of mistakes.
That trade looks pretty bad in hindsight: The Patriots traded the second-round pick the Ravens gave them for another second-rounder, which they used to draft safety Eugene Wilson, who immediately became a starter on a team that won consecutive Super Bowls during his first two seasons in the league. That 2004 first-round pick? Vince Wilfork.
One of the biggest reasons why Newsome has been able to get past the occasional misstep has been the organization’s ability to find talent in the later rounds and among undrafted free agents. The haul of undrafted free agents that the Ravens have brought in is actually staggering once you put it together, even if the players in question didn’t always find their biggest success with Baltimore. The most notable of those players is three-time All-Pro Priest Holmes, who won a Super Bowl with the 2000 Ravens before becoming a superstar in Kansas City. The Ravens nabbed him in their 1997 haul of undrafted free agents alongside center Mike Flynn, who eventually moved into the starting role in Baltimore and became a regular on their offensive line for eight seasons. Flynn’s presence on the roster forced the team to cut an undrafted center who had latched on in Baltimore after two months in 1998; that center eventually caught on with the Colts, which is where Jeff Saturday ended up making six Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl title as Peyton Manning’s pocket protector. The list is even more impressive on the defensive side of the ball, where Baltimore found Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Will Demps, and Bart Scott as undrafted free agents in 2002 alone. Those three players have combined for 279 regular season starts and counting. More recently, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe have made their way into starting roles after going undrafted, while Baltimore managed to find one of the best kickers in football this past season — Justin Tucker — in the free talent pool last May. Newsome did more with his undrafted free agents than Matt Millen did with actual draft picks during their shared time as general managers.
Noticeably, Newsome and the Ravens are very smart about how they value those players and treat the acquisition opportunities available to them. Battista’s article talks about how the Ravens waited until the fifth round to draft safety Dawan Landry during a time when Baltimore had only one safety on the roster. When Bisciotti fretted with each safety coming off the board, Newsome calmed down the owner and promised they would end up with a safety when a safety was the best available player on the board. That was Landry, who immediately stepped in as a starter alongside Reed and played effectively during his four-year rookie contract. When that deal ran out, the Ravens didn’t treat Landry like a precious object because they’d drafted him and gotten good value out of him; knowing that they had the best safety in football playing the other spot, they let Landry leave in free agency and trusted that they would be able to find another player on an undervalued deal to play alongside Reed. That was Bernard Pollard, who annually gets one-third of the guaranteed money Landry got on his new contract from the Jaguars. Likewise, the Ravens happily let inside linebackers like Ed Hartwell and Bart Scott hit free agency and replaced them with the next player they drafted in the late rounds or signed off the scrap heap. Bad organizations find even the tiniest diamond in the rough and treat that diamond like it’s a testament to their brilliance; good organizations like Baltimore realize that there are probably more diamonds where that one came from and keep searching.
After all I’ve told you about how well the Ravens scout and develop players, you might mistake them for the rival Steelers, a team that has built its roster almost exclusively upon homegrown drafted-and-developed talent for decades. Newsome’s Ravens do the D&D thing well, but they’re way more interesting than that. More than just about any team in football, Baltimore is an active team in terms of acquiring veteran talent, often from organizations that can’t afford to keep the player on their rosters. As a result, Baltimore has derived significant value from many of these trades. When Boller failed to launch, the Ravens dealt a fourth-round pick to Tennessee for Steve McNair, whom the Titans had been shopping for months after drafting Vince Young. He tided things over for a year and led the Ravens back to the playoffs. They dealt third- and fourth-round picks to Arizona for Anquan Boldin and a fifth-rounder, giving Boldin the contract extension he sought in the process. Another trade brought Willis McGahee to town for two third- and one seventh-round pick, and while the contract Baltimore gave him turned out to be excessive, McGahee was a back on whom the Bills had burned a first-round pick several years earlier. Baltimore even thought they had a deal for Terrell Owens when they agreed to send a second-round pick to the 49ers for T.O. in 2004, only for Owens to protest the deal because of a contractual loophole and eventually end up in Philadelphia, where he nearly led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.
Newsome has also been more active in free agency than your typical draft-and-develop GM. Outside of deals for Michael McCrary, Sam Adams, and Domonique Foxworth, many of those contracts have been for players who were in their thirties and considered to be past their prime. Baltimore has managed to keep those players healthy and productive contributors, though, long after their sell-by date. Shannon Sharpe, Tony Siragusa, and Rod Woodson all served in key roles on the 2000 Super Bowl–winning team, while Derrick Mason and Trevor Pryce became regulars in Baltimore during the latter half of the decade. In addition to Pollard, the current Ravens have gotten competent work from left tackle Bryant McKinnie during the 2011 season and in these 2012 playoffs, which represents good value for the two-year, $7.5 million deal he signed before last season. And their best cornerback during the playoffs has been former Bears backup Corey Graham, who was signed primarily for his work on special teams; Graham will make about $1.3 million this year and be an integral part of the Super Bowl game plan on defense.
You can draw a vague outline around these plans and present them to an owner as a list for what a general manager should do, but a bad general manager would screw them up. Trade your draft picks for veteran players who want contract extensions? Sign old guys in free agency? Trade up for a quarterback when you want one? That sounds like the work of an awful GM, not a brilliant one. What makes it all work for Newsome and the Ravens is that he knows when to make the unconventional move and trusts that the scouting done by his front office is accurate. The Baltimore front office is full of people who graduated through what Newsome calls the 20-20 Club, the entry level in the Baltimore personnel department that pays twentysomethings little more than $20,000 per year. The guys who made it through the 20-20 Club, as Battista notes, have grown from being lowly interns designated to drive players to and from the airport into valuable personnel executives and scouts. One generation of scouts teaches the next, and by the time they grow up, they know exactly what the Ravens look for from a player in any given position. The Ravens also don’t subscribe to either of the independent scouting services (BLESTO and National Football Scouting) that the vast majority of the league’s teams use, so there’s no influence from outside sources who don’t take Baltimore’s specific schematic concerns and player-evaluation credos into account.
And that all brings me back to the two buzzwords from earlier: valuing and evaluating. Because the vast majority of NFL general managers come from a scouting background, they’re comfortable with the talent evaluation side of the job. Properly valuing the information you have and putting the player in context, though, is arguably even more important. Baltimore has used Newsome’s ability to properly value talent to acquire superstars at the end of the first round, trade for veteran talent at below-market value rates, and churn undrafted free agents in the right positions while saving (or reallocating) millions of dollars in the process. Baltimore’s big secret might just be that they don’t have a big secret. They simply take the two most fundamental processes that a football team needs to focus on and execute them better than anybody else in the league. That’s why they’re playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday, and why Newsome is among the best general managers in league history.