Continuity Is Key To Ravens' Draft Success

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When the Ravens scouts sit down for lunch, they often grade the day's food.

Their player rating scale goes up to an 8.0. The cafeteria's tomato basil soup has been discussed thoroughly and received a grade of 6.3. The chicken chili is a 6.7. The star of the spread is the peanut butter frozen yogurt, which is a perfect 8.0.

"When we talk about any subject, usually somebody throws a grade on it," said Ravens Senior Personnel Assistant George Kokinis.

"No matter what that is, we have a picture of what that means. We all know the grading scale so well; it's like our personal language."

General Manager Ozzie Newsome is known for his drafting acumen. He often picks the right players on draft day, and will likely continue to do so starting in tonight's first round.

But there's a lot that goes into making those pick, a lot more work done before Newsome gives the thumbs up. There are many reasons why Baltimore gets the picks right more often than many other teams.

A large part is that "personal language" the Ravens scouting department possesses. That comes with experience together – with continuity.

Continuity is a rare animal in the NFL, where front offices sometimes turnover quicker than the starting quarterback. The fact that Baltimore is laden with experience together gives the Ravens a distinct advantage.

Newsome has been with the Ravens since their inception in 1996. He stayed with the franchise in its move from Cleveland, and was officially named the team's general manager in 2002, becoming the NFL's first African American to hold that position.

There are only four general managers who have been GMs for more years: Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Mike Brown (Bengals), Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Kevin Colbert (Steelers). For context, since 2012, the season the Ravens won the Super Bowl, there have been 15 new general managers. Almost half the league has turned over its front office in the past three years.

It's not just Newsome who has a long track record in Baltimore. It's nearly everybody in the team's scouting department.

The man largely responsible for setting the Ravens' draft board is Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta. In 1996, he was hired for an entry-level "20/20" position (20 years old making $20,000 per year) and worked his way up.

Director of Pro Personnel Vincent Newsome and Kokinis also came over from Cleveland in 1996. Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz got his start with the Ravens in 1998. Assistant Director of Pro Personnel Chad Alexander came on one year later in 1999.

The collective experience of those six men with the Baltimore Ravens is 108 years.

It continues throughout the scouts. National Scout Joe Douglas has been with the team since 2000. The Ravens' seven regional or area scouts have been with Baltimore for an average of nine years.

So what makes them stay? And how does this make a difference in scouting?

"I think the strongest aspect of that [continuity] is that we challenge each other," Newsome said.

"[Head Coach] John [Harbaugh] challenges me, Eric challenges me, Eric challenges Joe, Joe challenges the scouts. … And I think that's where the strength comes in is that we all go in very open-minded willing to listen and learn, willing to get criticized. I get criticized, because I don't have scriptures on my tongue either."

First of all, the scouting department has remained together, members say, because of the team's success on the field, high-class leadership (starting with Owner Steve Bisciotti), and the character of people throughout the organization.

But there's a special camaraderie among those in the scouting department. Staying on the topic of Newsome's challenges, a couple years ago, the Ravens scouting department instituted their own challenge system, just like the NFL's replay method.

An intern bought a red flag for everybody in the scouting wing. A golden three-ring binder was created, keeping a log of challenges and outlining the rules. For example, all challenges must be made within five minutes of the offense and a challenge can be overruled by anyone. You gain a third challenge if you're successful with two on the same day.

What's a challengeable offense? Wearing too high of shorts, pillow talking to your wife on the phone, overzealous dapping, falsifying your presence in the office by leaving your lights on and laptop open when you leave. Yeah, those were all officially logged.

"If anything comes up that's a little suspect, flags come flying into the hallway," Kokinis said with a laugh. "It's a work-hard, play-hard atmosphere. And when you can have fun and have relationships like that, then somebody will bring something up and, all of a sudden, you're talking about players."

DeCosta, the organization's chief prankster, has been considered for multiple general manager positions with other teams and turned them down. He stated his reason for doing so earlier this month.

"In the end, personal ambitions aside, all you have is really your reputation and your friends and your enjoyment in life," he said. "I sit with these guys every day and give everybody a hard time, get a chance to play jokes on everybody every day, and it's just fun. I enjoy work."

Very few have left. In 2009, Kokinis was named the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, but didn't find the same familiarity in Baltimore and was let go within the year. He returned to the Ravens the following season.

"That was unique for me," Kokinis said. "I had been here for so long and know when a scout reads a report, what he means by that, or what kind of player he likes.

"There wasn't the luxury of time and experience together to understand fully the type of players each scout preferred. I was new, so there was going to be some hesitance in the room as compared to the way it is here."

Kokinis can easily name the kind of player every one of the Ravens area scouts prefer. Newsome, DeCosta, Hortiz, and Harbaugh could all probably do the same. The scouts could do it about each other.

Northeast Area Scout Mark Acevedo likes prospects with lots of college production and has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough. West Area Scout David Blackburn values highly athletic prospects. Midwest Area Scout Jack Glowick leans towards tough, put-your-face-in-the-dirt kind of players. West-Regional Scout Lonnie Young is a size guy all the way.

"You get to know people's quirks and tendencies in terms of players," Hortiz said. "You can almost tell before we go into meetings who is going to fight for which guys."

While everybody has their particular tastes, they also all know exactly what it means to "Play Like A Raven." That model has been passed down throughout the years, giving the scouts a consistent outline of what to look for.

Since they've all been around so long together, they can also go through their memory rolodex and compare players. Maybe a particular cornerback reminds them of a young Chris McAlister, and they all know what that exactly means.

"They can go back and talk about 10 years ago compared to this process," Harbaugh said.

Once the information is gathered by the scouts and the tape is watched by front office and coaches, the Ravens come together to script their iron-clad draft board that will dictate who they pick.

Not only does everybody speak the same language, but their familiarity with each other has bred trust to give everybody a voice. While Newsome and Harbaugh listen, the scouts are given the platform to present their findings – their year-long projects – on each prospect in their region.

"I just try to sit back and be a sponge and gain as much information as I can. Hopefully that puts us in a position to make picks," Newsome said.

"Honestly, we don't do a lot of things different than we did 10, 15 or 20 years ago; it's the same process," DeCosta added. "What we do is we trust our scouts and our coaches."

Scouts crosscheck other scouts' findings. Coaches watch the same tape and have their own notes and thoughts. With so many people watching the same prospects, there are often differing opinions.

When there can be healthy debate, it gets to the true core of how good that player really is and where they should be ranked. Sure, some people's voice holds more weight, but everybody can freely stand up and make their case – even if the whole room disagrees.

"You're not afraid to have different opinions than guys," Blackburn said. "You don't take anything personally. There are no hidden agendas. You have to have those types of conversations to get the board right."

Blackburn said sometimes a scout can be "flat-out wrong" on a player. But if they've done the research and they have reasons for why they like the player, they are heard. That's encouraging for a scout, and it motivates them to make sure they know everything about their players.

"I think it's a travesty when guys don't feel like they're allowed to voice their opinion, or their opinion isn't valued, given all the work that goes from July all the way through April," Blackburn said.

"You spend all that time away from your family, typing reports and traveling and stuff. The least you can do is go in there and relay the information and tell people how you feel. I think you've earned it. And if you don't, I think you're really doing the team a disservice."

Blackburn said there are some "downtrodden" scouts out there who feel like they're just information gatherers. They don't feel valued. They don't feel comfortable disagreeing with somebody. They don't feel like they can contribute.

"Ravens scouts are the happiest and the hardest working scouts when they go to a school," Blackburn said.

In describing the personality of the scouts, Kokinis often used the word "loyal." It's something the Ravens highly value. It means loyal to the Ravens' scouting process, loyal to staying in Baltimore. But it's not like it's too tempting to leave.

Hortiz described it like marrying a "10." Or maybe it's like eating peanut butter soft serve every single day. Why would you want anything else?

"People just don't want to leave," Hortiz said. "And that's a good thing."

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