For Ravens, character counts

In evaluating players, team also weighs attitude, off-field issues

April 27, 2006|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

When it comes to evaluating a player's past, the Ravens always look to their own.

From the franchise's first pick - choosing gentlemanly offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden over troubled running back Lawrence Phillips in 1996 - character has become the foundation of the Ravens' drafts. The team's scouting department has stuck to the philosophy that the safest pick is often the wisest.

Of the 12 players taken by the Ravens in the first round, three (Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Suggs) came with any criminal history, and all were considered minor offenses.

This line of thinking could play a pivotal role in the Ravens' decision-making in the first round Saturday.

Five top prospects linked to the Ravens - Tennessee's Jason Allen, Florida State's Brodrick Bunkley, Southern California's Winston Justice, Florida State's Ernie Sims and Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams - have been red-flagged by some scouts because of character issues.

"What Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] is concerned with and what I'm consumed with is eliminating the risk," director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "It's making the sound decisions and finding the guys like Mark Claytons and Ed Reeds. You know exactly what you're getting when they come in the building. For me, character is critical."

The Ravens' research begins by talking to people at a player's school, from the head coach to the position coach to the trainer. If questions remain, the Ravens can perform a background check through a service provided by the NFL or rely on connections through Darren Sanders, the team's director of security who is a former Baltimore police detective.

An influential part of the process is the face-to-face interview with the player. Because the Ravens don't rule out players for one incident, team officials will give prospects an opportunity to explain themselves.

With his laptop computer in front of him, DeCosta will ask a player about an arrest even though he has all the details on his screen.

"It's almost like being a police officer," he said. "You're asking questions that you already know the answers to. We like to see how the players react under stress."

At this year's scouting combine, the Ravens questioned one player about a weapons charge. When the player replied that it was just one gun, DeCosta asked why the police report listed three other guns.

"If the details from what I'm reading don't match with what he's telling me, then we have a problem. That happens a lot," DeCosta said. "There's very little we don't know about."

The Ravens have eliminated LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten, Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson and Georgia Tech cornerback Reuben Houston from their draft board because of repeat criminal offenses.

Another player with a couple arrests is Justice, the USC offensive tackle who might represent the biggest risk for the Ravens at the 13th overall pick. He was suspended for the entire 2004 season after pointing a toy gun at a student. The previous year, he pleaded no contest to solicitation of prostitution and received three years' probation.

It would seem unlikely the Ravens would consider Justice, but they have not publicly ruled him out.

"We think he is a young player who has a very good upside," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.

There is more gray area surrounding Sims and Bunkley.

Sims, an outside linebacker from Florida State, was arrested in June 2005 after a fight with his live-in girlfriend, who refused to press charges. He pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct.

The Ravens seem much higher on Sims than Bunkley, a defensive tackle for the Seminoles.

Bunkley was arrested in January 2003 on a petty theft charge. After paying a fine for stealing a video game, he served 16 hours of community service.

"There's a lot of players that have some issues in their background," DeCosta said. "There is no scale. There is no exact science. When you see evidence of things happening consistently, you question a guy's worth."

Unlike criminal records, the question of attitude is more subjective.

Williams, a highly rated defensive back from Virginia Tech, is expected to slide because of a volatile personality. There is a perception that Williams is too undisciplined and might be a headache for a coaching staff. Ravens officials said they were "fine" after talking with Williams.

Allen, another top defensive back out of Tennessee, has sometimes been described as arrogant and too easily influenced by others.

"Non-criminal issues can be just as damaging," DeCosta said. "We have a great structure here to deal with some of those types of things, but we're not a rehab organization."

The questionable prospects who pass through the screening of Newsome and the scouts must get through one final step. A day before the draft, owner Steve Bisciotti and team president Dick Cass weigh in on whether a player will remain on the Ravens' board.

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