Eisenberg: Ravens Adept At Finding Gems


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There are 300 football prospects on hand, which is a lot, more than will be drafted in April, and every one of them can play. There isn't a clunker in the bunch, at least not outwardly. They all had shimmering college careers or they wouldn't be there.

Yet in the end, relatively few are going to become starters in the NFL, and even fewer are going to become stars.

It's easy enough for teams to picks guys with shiny credentials who look like they can play, but the trick is to sort through those dozens of impressive prospects and identify the few who are real difference-makers.

The Ravens have done it about as well as anyone over the years, which is why they've made four trips to the playoffs in the past five seasons.

Their success boils down almost entirely to their ability to stand in front of 300 draft prospects and pick out gems. Sure, coaching and the ability to develop players also play critical roles, but first things first -- you have to have the talent on hand before you can become a winner.

It isn't nearly as easy as it looks, folks, not when almost all of those prospects are dressed alike in their combine workout gear, exhibiting similarly superior physical qualities.

In 2002, 23 players were selected before the Ravens announced Ed Reed as their first-round choice. It's funny to look back and see that other teams picking ahead of the Ravens took immortals such as Levi Jones, Ashley Lelie and Napoleon Harris, leaving an all-time playmaker on the board.

The teams that took those others players got little, and the Ravens got a future Hall of Famer, a franchise cornerstone.

Think it was an easy call at the time? Reed was 5-11, not especially big, and while he was the top-rated free safety in that year's class, he wasn't outrageously fast. His savvy probably was evident on film, but when is savvy ever easy to discern?

In 2006, just before the Ravens took Haloti Ngata in the first round, the Raiders, Bills, Lions and Cardinals picked Michael Huff, Donte Whitner, Ernie Sims and Matt Leinert, which, in a nutshell, is why they're the Raiders, Bills, Lions and Cardinals.

Was it an easy call? Ngata showed impressive agility and strength at the combine, but most experts rated him evenly with another defensive tackle, Brodrick Bunkley of Florida State, who went to the Eagles two slots later.

The Ravens were able to separate the two players' talents and get the right guy; Bunkley developed into a starter before suffering an elbow injury in 2010, but he's nowhere near the same caliber as Ngata.

Fifty-four players were selected before the Ravens took Ray Rice in the second round in 2008. Several backs ran faster at the combine. Several others lifted more weight. Rice was deemed a second-tier prospect behind Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson. He "won't fall below the third round," one expert said.

The Ravens didn't even need a back. They had Willis McGahee coming off a Pro Bowl season. But Rice made the team better, it turned out. Within two years of his selection, he was in the Pro Bowl himself.

Fans of the Ravens shouldn't take that game-changing pick for granted. They sorted through a lot of talent and found their guy.

I'm not suggesting they've been perfect. They would surely love to have back their first pick in 2000 when they took Travis Taylor, leaving seven future Pro Bowlers on the board in the first round alone. In 2005, they took Mark Clayton instead of Roddy White. And of course, the anointment of Kyle Boller as their franchise quarterback didn't exactly work out.

But more often than not, they have sorted through the varied talents on display at the combine and selected players who can help.

A lot of teams can't seem to do it. They can.

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