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One Last Time: Ozzie Newsome Leads Ravens' Draft Room

April 16, 2018
One Last Time One last time this month, Ozzie Newsome will take command in the Ravens' "war room," the closely guarded draft headquarters at the team's Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Md. One last time, he will make the final decisions about which players to select, which trade offers to listen to and which ones to reject. One last time, he will tell a young player that his NFL dream has been launched as the newest member of the Baltimore Ravens.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti announced in February that after the 2018 season Newsome, 62, will step down as general manager after 22 seasons in charge of the team's roster-building process. It was a plan hatched five years ago by Bisciotti and Newsome in conjunction with Newsome's long-time top lieutenant, Eric DeCosta, who will ascend to the general manager's chair in 2019.

Newsome will remain with the organization in a role still to be determined, but as he prepares for his final draft in charge, it's fitting to look back at the career of a person who, more than anyone else, has shaped the direction and identity of the Ravens' franchise. 

"Ozzie is synonymous with the Ravens," Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden said. "You pretty much can't mention the Baltimore Ravens without Ozzie Newsome coming up relatively quickly in the conversation."

Hall of Fame Career

Before Newsome ever set foot in a front office, he was already an NFL legend, a Hall of Fame player who set NFL records for tight end productivity throughout 13 seasons (1978-1990) with the Cleveland Browns. 

In the ensuing three decades, he made the rarely accomplished transition from star player to successful NFL executive, with two Super Bowl rings to show for his team-building acumen. And he's a pioneering one at that; in 2002, then-Ravens owner Art Modell made Newsome the league's first African-American general manager.

"Ozzie's just special," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said at the owners meetings last month. "He's been great at everything he's ever done. If you look at his history, he's a Hall of Famer. He's in every Hall of Fame there is."

You won't hear any of that from Newsome, a humble family man from Alabama. Newsome prefers to stay out of the spotlight, rarely meeting with the media, and he was not available for this story. He did acknowledge at the NFL Scouting Combine, however, that what amounts to a farewell tour this year has allowed him to receive some "pats on the back." 

Newsome began his front-office career as a special assignment scout and assistant to then-Browns head coach Bill Belichick. Modell promoted Newsome to director of player personnel in 1994, and when the franchise moved to Baltimore, Newsome went too, as vice president of player personnel.

"He really got a chance to learn the business side of the game, on the coaching side and on the personnel side," said Phil Savage, who worked as a scout with Newsome in Cleveland and was the Ravens' first director of college scouting. 

Savage noted that while many former players "want to be the boss right away when they leave the field," Newsome watched and learned, diligently absorbing front-office knowledge. 

"So when he got his opportunity when we moved to Baltimore," Savage said, "he had really gotten excellent training in terms of the nuts and bolts of how it all worked and how to put it together."

At that point, a couple of months before the 1996 draft, the Ravens had no uniforms, no logo and no permanent facility. But what the organization did have, and what would quickly become its foundation, was Newsome's vision.  

For two decades, Newsome has relied on his own keen eye for evaluating talent, the trust of a cadre of scouts he has molded in his image, a philosophy that places a premium on draft picks, and an innate sense of calm amid the annual frenzy of free agency or war-room chaos.

"He has a process, a plan, kind of like Bill Belichick," Ogden said. "You don't let the outside people influence you, you believe in what your abilities are and what you're looking for, and it's worked out."

Home Runs from the Start

This April marks Newsome's 23rd draft with the Ravens, and on his watch the franchise has drafted 181 players. After all those years and all those picks, Newsome's first pick remains his best call.

In 1996, the Ravens had the No. 4 overall pick based on the Browns' 5-11 record the year before. Hoping to add star power and highlight-reel plays to fill seats in the team's new city, Modell was leaning toward talented but troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips with that first pick. Newsome saw things differently. Atop his draft board was a towering, once-in-a-generation left tackle from UCLA. The Ravens didn't even need a left tackle -- they had a returning starter in Tony Jones. 

With the Ravens on the clock, and with his No. 1 player still on the board, Newsome immediately established what would become the central tenet of his draft philosophy: Take the best available player, regardless of need. Thus with the No. 4 overall pick, the Ravens' first ever, Newsome selected Jonathan Ogden. 

"Mr. Modell was talking with me about, 'Well, drafting an offensive lineman [doesn't] help me sell tickets in a new city,'" Newsome told NFL Network in 2013. 

Taking Ogden, Newsome said, "may not have been a popular pick, but it was a great pick."

Indeed, Ogden went on to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, while Phillips lived a troubled, tragic life. He played three seasons in the NFL, ended up in prison and committed suicide in 2016. 

"If we don't pick Jonathan Ogden with that first pick," Newsome said in 2013, "I may not have this job."

But Newsome wasn't done. The Ravens had a second pick in that first round, courtesy of a trade with the San Francisco 49ers a year earlier. And with that pick, Newsome selected charismatic linebacker Ray Lewis, who will join Ogden in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August.

Right Player, Right Price

During the next few years, the fledgling executive and the fledging franchise quickly matured together, as Newsome assembled a team that would win a Super Bowl title in its fifth season in Baltimore. 

The Ravens' first pick in the 1997 draft, linebacker Peter Boulware, was the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Within the next three years, the Ravens drafted All-Pros Chris McAlister and Jamal Lewis, as well as critical role players such as linebacker Jamie Sharper, cornerback Duane Starks and safety Kim Herring. 

Newsome filled the missing pieces through free agency, signing players such as tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive back Rod Woodson and defensive lineman Michael McCrary. 

If Newsome's draft philosophy is framed by the mantra of best available player regardless of need, his free agency philosophy is right player, right price. 

Patient and deliberate, Newsome often waits out the initial frenzy of free agency, letting others chase the shiny new toys while he finds values later.

In 1997, the Ravens had their eyes on free-agent defensive end Michael Bankston, but talks broke down when the Ravens made an offer Bankston thought was too low. Newsome, though, had identified Bankston's value and would not deviate. A few days later, the Ravens signed McCrary to a three-year deal. McCrary had 14.5 sacks in 1998, the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons in Baltimore. He had 6.5 sacks in 2000, a season that ended with a Super Bowl title, and was inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor in 2004. 

"Ozzie's got tremendous patience," Savage said. "He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, and one reason he's been a good decision-maker is he takes in all the information. He rarely, if ever, has made a rash judgment."

Newsome's patience has produced benefits in another way, as he manages an often overlooked game-within-the-game of free agency more shrewdly than anyone else.

Last month, the Ravens signed wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who had been released by the Oakland Raiders. Because he had been cut, Crabtree will not factor into the formula used to assign compensatory draft picks. Newsome has long seen value in such players for exactly that reason; when the Ravens lose free agents to other teams, and sign free agents who had already been released, the net result is compensatory picks in future drafts. 

Since compensatory draft picks were introduced in 1994, the Ravens have had 48 -- the most in the league, as of 2017. You don't need to be a math genius to see where this is headed.

"There's nobody that covets picks more than the Baltimore Ravens," DeCosta said before a previous draft. (DeCosta, like Newsome, was not available for this article.) 

Three players selected by the Ravens with compensatory picks in 2013 became starters: fullback Kyle Juszczyk, offensive tackle Rick Wagner and center Ryan Jensen. 

In Ozzie We Trust

Newsome's system -- his talent evaluation, his draft strategy, his free-agency patience -- all fold into what has become the unofficial team mantra that might as well be etched in stone at M&T Bank Stadium: "In Ozzie We Trust."

"It's just an understanding that regardless of what happens, Ozzie and his staff were going to be up to the task of building a competitive if not championship team," longtime Baltimore broadcaster Keith Mills said. "When people say, 'In Ozzie we trust,' it means that even if the decision that he makes might not be an overall popular one, they believe it's going to be the right one because of his track record." 

Long on vision and short on sentiment, Newsome has made tough calls to not retain popular players -- Ring of Honor members, even -- and more often than not, Newsome's timing has proved to be prescient. 

Tight end Todd Heap had two middling seasons after the Ravens released him in 2011. Receiver Derrick Mason, the team's all-time leading receiver, was let go at the same time and played just one more year, with 19 catches. Safety Ed Reed lasted one year after leaving the Ravens, bouncing from the Houston Texans to the New York Jets before retiring.

Granted, there have been well-documented misses, too -- like trading Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round pick after winning the Super Bowl. With the team having missed the playoffs three years in a row, Newsome is facing scrutiny as never before. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season, the Ravens have gone 40-40, with one playoff berth in the past five seasons. 

A series of high-profile, high-round draft disappointments recently have hurt the franchise, and since 2009, just two players drafted by the Ravens have made the Pro Bowl (Juzczyk and linebacker C.J. Mosley).  

"Some of the media has portrayed him as losing his touch, so to speak; I'm not so sure of that," Mills said. "I still have a tremendous amount of faith in Ozzie that, No. 1, he really knows what he's doing, and No. 2, this year, he'll prove it again."

Those draft misses have something of a domino effect; when first-round Matt Elam and third-round Terrence Brooks flopped, the Ravens scrambled to find suitable replacements at safety on the free-agent market -- think Darian Stewart, Kendrick Lewis, Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson -- at a much higher cost. That further tightened an already tight cap situation.

Granted, draft hindsight is always 20-20. Bisciotti has pointed out that the same year the Ravens whiffed on Elam and second-round linebacker Arthur Brown, the Ravens hit on four players in later rounds: defensive tackle Brandon Williams, Juszczyk, Wagner and Jensen. But Bisciotti did acknowledge that the cost of missing on draft picks recently has been "significant."

There has also been another factor in the Ravens' recent slide that never shows up in the box score: The Ravens have had a major talent drain in their scouting department. Joe Douglas, Andy Weidl and Ian Cunningham, who collectively totaled 35 years with the Ravens' organization, are now all in the player personnel department with the Philadelphia Eagles, who just won the Super Bowl.

Calm in the storm

But Newsome soldiers on, guiding a personnel staff that includes his top lieutenants, such as DeCosta and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz -- two members of the team's "20/20" club, so named for being hired as 20somethings who worked for $20,000 as they began their climb up the organization's depth chart -- and a network of road-warrior scouts. 

As Newsome and his staff set the board in preparation for this month's draft, he will consider the input of everyone, right down to the intern who shuttles players to and from the airport during visits to the team facility. (Players have even been known to receive "van grades" for their demeanor en route).

"Ozzie always showed tremendous respect, whether someone had been with the team for 10 or 12 years or someone had been there for 10 or 12 days," Savage said. "He created a situation where everyone felt like they had a voice, and everything they were doing was important. That doesn't happen everywhere in the NFL."

Then the Ravens will be on the clock, and Newsome will take charge one last time. He will assess. He will listen. He might even infuriate. (Brian Billick stormed out of the war room in 1999 after Newsome accepted a trade that gave up a second-round pick for a first-rounder the following year.) But he will stay true to his vision and his conviction. He will stay measured and focused, even if he, DeCosta and Hortiz are simultaneously entertaining trade offers with the clock winding down. 

"In the storm, he is calm," said Ravens vice president Kevin Byrne, who has worked with Newsome for more than 30 years and has been in the Ravens' war room for every draft. "I'm always amazed to see him orchestrate that without being frantic."

Then Newsome will make the call, as the franchise puts its trust in him one last time.

"You learn every single day in that job," Savage said, "and when you consider he sat in that chair for 20-plus years, it's almost staggering, really. He's made it look easy, and it's not easy. It's a very, very difficult job."  

Follow Bo on Twitter @bsmolka      

Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens

Issue 243: April 2018