Eric DeCosta: Outside The War Room
By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff
Eric DeCosta turned 36 years old this week.
But despite endless days and weeks on the road, evaluating would-be future NFL stars, preparing reports on them and sharing his impressions with one of the best personnel departments in the business, the Ravens' college scouting director doesn't have lots of mileage on him.
Indeed, DeCosta's countenance remains that of the fresh-faced, eager young New Englander who always knew he wanted to be the overseer, rather than the overseen.
"At a young age, about 7 years old, I was fascinated with the NFL, particularly the draft," DeCosta said. "I've always been the kind of person that wanted to put things together. Not necessarily coaching players, but building a team was always appealing to me.
"I've always been the kind of person that wanted to put things together." -- Eric DeCosta
"I always wanted to work in the NFL, to be a scout."
Scouting is usually thought of as a stereotypical world of grizzled, stopwatch-carrying, story-swapping veterans who can recall in an eyeblink what a Hall of Famer looked like in his first workout.
But with common-sense wisdom that belies his age, not to mention a photographic memory, DeCosta is one for whom scouting was second nature from the first day.
That's because for every pick made by each of the 32 NFL teams at the annual "selection meeting" (aka "The Draft") that takes place at the end of this month, there's a lot of time, energy and thought that go into it.
"I can see situations from a lot of different angles," DeCosta said. "I try to make the best decisions. It might not be always the perfect decision, but I hope it's the best decision. I trust my instincts. I can handle more than one thing quickly and can assimilate a lot of different information.
"In drafting, you're not always going to get a Pro Bowl player, but you try to get the best player available at that time. There's a finite amount of players you can draft, and it's about how you have the board stacked. I listen well, and our scouts do an outstanding job providing information."
Have they ever.
DeCosta doesn't have a lot of years behind him, but thanks in part to his and others' player-personnel acumen off the field, local fans have plenty of years of great memories on it.
The first-round successes alone are enough to boggle the mind.
Tackle Jonathan Ogden (1996) has been to 10 Pro Bowls. Linebacker Ray Lewis (1996), thought to be too small for his position, has been a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and an eight-time Pro Bowl pick.
Besides those future Hall of Fame inductees, further testimony to due diligence includes:
• Linebacker Peter Boulware (1997, four Pro Bowls)
• Cornerback Chris McAlister (1999, three)
• 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis (2000, one)
• Tight end Todd Heap (2001, two), the team's all-time leading receiver
• Former Defensive Player of the Year and Ravens' all-time interception leader Ed Reed (2002, three)
• Pass-rushing demon Terrell Suggs (2003, two)
• Quick-developing nose guard Haloti Ngata (2006).
The Ravens have not only mined first-round gems, but second-day diamonds in the rough as well.
Fourth-round picks that contributed mightily to the Ravens' mostly-successful history have included guard Edwin Mulitalo (1999), punter Dave Zastudil (2002), defensive end/linebacker Jarret Johnson and fullback Ovie Mughelli (both 2003), current left guard Jason Brown (2005) and wide receiver Demetrius Williams (2006).
"Endurance is important in scouting." -- Eric DeCosta
The fifth round has yielded standouts such as return specialist Jermaine Lewis (1996) and center Jeff Mitchell (1997) -- both starters in Super Bowl XXXV -- fullback Justin Green (2005) and free safety Dawan Landry (2006), one of the NFL's best rookies at any position last season.
In round six, DeCosta and general manager Ozzie Newsome added linebacker Adalius Thomas (2000), running back Chester Taylor and safety Chad Williams (both 2002), safety Gerome Sapp (2003) and punter Sam Koch (2006) to their resume.
Not even the seventh round can escape the Ravens' draft-day magic, what with players such as promising young guard Brian Rimpf (2004) and versatile linebacker Mike Smith (2005) having lasted until the final set of picks.
Then, there are the undrafted free agents such as running back Priest Holmes (1997), safety Will Demps and linebacker Bart Scott (both 2002) who have also burnished the Ravens' reputation.
All told, since 1999 51.6 percent of the Ravens' draft picks are still on a current NFL roster. Not only that, but nearly 75 percent of Baltimore's picks over that same span have spent at least an appreciable amount of time on a pro roster.
Also, Baltimore was the only team to claim all of its 2006 Pro Bowl selectees as home-grown.
There's no doubt that Newsome and the seven-man area scouting staff deserve their share of credit for finding such talent. But it's also no small wonder that The Sporting News named DeCosta as one of the rising young stars in sports approximately a year ago.
"There is an unbelievable trust I have in Eric," Newsome said. "Once he stepped into (former college scouting director) Phil Savage's seat, he just took off. One of the amazing things I saw was his ability to analyze a situation and then come to a conclusion really quickly.
"He is a quick study, and in the draft you have to be that way."
One reason DeCosta works so well with Newsome is because the feeling is mutual.
"Ozzie has great instincts," DeCosta said. "I believe in Ozzie and coach (Brian) Billick, and I think we've built a system of scouting players that works for us.
"It's a nine-month system, it takes a lot of time, it's monotonous, and it's not always fun, but it works. It sifts through the mediocre players and allows us to find the best players from round one through round seven."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN... AND AGAIN
To prepare for the lightning-fast decisions that must be made on draft day, a slow, arduous process must first take place.
In preparation for the draft, DeCosta works closely with Newsome, two national scouts (former NFL running back Lionel Vital and Joe Horwitz) and five area scouts segmented throughout the country (Chad Alexander, Joe Douglas, Daniel Jeremiah, Jeremiah Washburn and Andy Weidl).
Besides crisscrossing the country throughout the autumn, observing draftable talent during their own college games, DeCosta and company are obligated to spend an entire January week in Mobile, Ala. -- site of the annual Senior Bowl. Then there is a February week in Indianapolis at the ever-growing Scouting Combine, and countless hours evaluating what they've seen and deciding how to set up their draft board for the annual madness that is draft weekend. DeCosta has spent many a night on the road in a dark hotel suite, looking at dozens of tapes of specific players.
When the tape machine is running, what is it that lights up the room and catches his eye?
"Explosion," he said. "That sometimes can be measured by how fast a guy runs, but also by the physical ability to knock somebody back or close on the football. Every player, no matter what position it is, the great ones demonstrate explosion.
"That might mean a linebacker meeting a fullback in the hole and knocking him back four yards or a running back catches a ball in the flat and outruns other defenders. It's hard to measure it, but explosion makes good football players."
It's also tough to quantify the loads of professional diligence and personal sacrifice the job takes for someone like DeCosta, a young man with a burgeoning family.
"It's hard," DeCosta said. "I'm away from home a lot, between 100-150 days a year, and it's a drain, emotionally and physically taxing. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting pulled in a lot of different directions.
"The key is to stay focused, not get distracted and be the best husband and father you can be."
Before wife Lacie -- a former Ravens employee -- and infant daughter Jane came into his life in the past five years, DeCosta used to be able to travel hither and yon and pay no attention to anything except his job.
That kind of focus is still necessary, but it does fill DeCosta with more than occasional regret.
"When I'm home and the family is awake, I try not to do much work-related," he said. "In the old days, before I was married, I 'd go home and stay up to 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning watching tape, drinking coffee and waking up at 10 on the weekends.
"Now, I know what I have to look forward to when I come home. In the old days, I would come back and sit by myself and watch tape. It's what I love to do, but it can be monotonous at times. Sometimes, I'll spend 10-12 hours a day in a dark room watching tape or driving, but there are times when the most meaningful conversation I'll have is with someone at the front desk of a hotel."
DeCosta, who runs and works out whenever and wherever he can, firmly believes that to maintain the mental acuity needed in his job, physical fitness is also important.
"Sometimes, I'll get in my workout at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m.," he said. "I've run stairs in hotels before and I've run on highways. You have to make time to do what you can do.
"You're most productive when you're mentally sharp and one way to stay mentally sharp is to stay physically sharp. Endurance is important in scouting."
MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE
At no time in the draft process does endurance become more important than it is right now, the final pre-draft evaluation period.
The evaluations take place at the Ravens' plush Owings Mills complex, one that has been described as a "castle" and a "palace" by the media. But when it comes to stocking the shelf for a Super Bowl-contending football team in a big-money, high-exposure business, it becomes nothing less than a fortress.
With less than a month to go before the draft, the Ravens -- who have a total of eight picks in this year's draft, but none in the third or seventh rounds -- and 31 other teams are stacking their boards with the names of the players they feel can best help them.
"The board" in the Ravens' draft room is no different than that in any conference room in any company in America. The large structure annually bears the names of roughly 300 of the nation's best college players, each with their own set of credits and debits.
There's no doubt DeCosta, Newsome and the scouts want players who can perform on the field, as do all other teams. But is there anything else that matters when it comes to being a true Raven?
"Intensity, passion for the game, the conviction to be the best they can be," DeCosta believes. "Intelligence is critical, and so is honesty. I want a guy to tell me the truth, to look me in the eye and give a sense that he'll rip someone's head off to win a game."
Graphic football metaphors aside, the Ravens also put a priority on character, despite having dealt with several off-field incidents over their short history. New commissioner Roger Goodell is serious about having all teams not only bring high-character players into the league, but making sure they do all they can to see they stay that way. It's a blunt approach, but it's one DeCosta seems to endorse.
"I want a guy who can answer questions in an honest manner," he said. "He may have made some mistakes, but he'll tell you about his mistakes and have a good explanation.
"You want a guy who cares about his family. When he talks about his mom and dad early in the conversation, that's a good thing. You don't want a guy not being truthful, fat, lazy, out of shape, and you don't want a guy who's going to be late.
"I make my decision within five minutes, quite honestly. We read the face. You talk to a lot of old-time baseball scouts, they talk about face-grading. We look at a guy's face and make a quick determination."
With this year's draft shaping up to be deeper than those in recent years, there are many choices to be made.
Defensive end is perhaps the richest position in the draft, what with talent like Clemson's Gaines Adams, Arkansas' Jamaal Anderson, Georgia's Charles Johnson, Florida's Jarvis Moss, Purdue's Anthony Spencer and Notre Dame and Gilman graduate Victor Abiamiri available.
But with the Ravens' offensive line going through some changes, many mock drafts have the team focusing on possibilities such as Texas guard Justin Blalock, Auburn guard Ben Grubbs or Central Michigan tackle Joe Staley.
"There's a pretty good crop (on the offensive line)," DeCosta said. "But also, you have to look at quarterbacks. Not so much the franchise guys, but a lot of second-tier quarterbacks look very interesting this year."
YOUNG MAN IN A HURRY
One has to wonder if any of the rookies taken in this year's draft will show the kind of tenacity DeCosta did when he first got into the business.
DeCosta coached linebackers and defensive linemen at Trinity (Mass.) College before sitting down at a computer in early 1995 and composing a letter that would change his life.
"I was tremendously persistent," DeCosta recalled. "I remember the day I sat at my computer and wrote a letter to all the NFL general managers, presidents, owners and head coaches. I sent out about 300 letters to teams offering my services, saying I'd work for free.
"One team responded, the Washington Redskins. (Then-Redskins GM) Charley Casserly gave me opportunity to go there as an intern with six other interns. It was a very competitive situation, not unlike 'The Apprentice.' The more you could do, the more they would give you to do."
After a seven-week stint in Washington, DeCosta got a phone call from a Ravens personnel man named Scott Pioli, who is now the vice-president of player personnel for the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
With Newsome already in tow, the Ravens had just moved from Cleveland to Baltimore and were looking to build quickly the kind of personnel staff that had led to multiple playoff appearances in Cleveland.
"I got a call from Scott, and they said they were looking for a young guy," DeCosta remembered. "I was in Connecticut and I said I would drive down there. He said, 'Don't go so crazy, we'll fly you down.'
"I remember getting a FedEx package and it was a plane ticket. I'd never been on a plane before, so I flew down, borrowed a suit and interviewed in the old state police barracks with Scott and Ozzie, and they offered me a job three weeks later."
Even in his mid-20s, DeCosta was given autonomy in his low-level personnel role.
"One of the greatest things for me was that the Ravens were a new franchise and we were starting from scratch," DeCosta said. "Ozzie and Phil Savage and Scott Pioli were starting from scratch. Those three guys were new on the job, but they hired me, a young guy, 25 years old, with not much experience and let me do anything I wanted to do because they didn't know what to do."
But DeCosta did. Inspired by former Dallas general manager Gil Brandt and the Cowboys' computer-oriented, cutting-edge approach to player evaluation, DeCosta quickly proved himself to the Ravens and rose rapidly as a result.
"The Cowboys had a very innovative way of looking at talent," DeCosta said. "They had more scouts than anybody else, they held tryouts and conducted workouts all over the country and they outsmarted teams.
"That was something I was attracted to, and the Boston Celtics did the same thing with Red Auerbach and his wheeling and dealing. The idea of outsmarting other teams and making good moves, sound decisions, drafting well, signing players and making trades was what I always wanted to do."
Despite the long hours and the hectic pace of the job, DeCosta does like to get away from the gridiron occasionally... not in a car or on an airplane, but by more literary means.
"I read a lot, that's probably my hobby," DeCosta said. "Those times when my wife goes to sleep a bit early, I'll stay up and read for a couple of hours. I read history, I like escapism, so I read some espionage and things like that."
There's plenty of espionage in what DeCosta does for a living. The ultra-competitive NFL world is rife with cloak-and-dagger maneuvering and surprises around every turn. He's a young man who's done it for a long time -- for one important reason.
"I love to win," he proclaims. "I get tired, like we all do in our jobs, but I love to win on Sundays. I have a passion for it.
"It's tremendously rewarding. There's no better feeling than taking that elevator at M&T Bank Stadium down to the locker room when you win. I work for that feeling."
Eric DeCosta is 36 years old.
There's not much mileage on him... so he'll keep working, winning and working some more.
Issue 2.15: April 12, 2007