Growing up in the farming community of Fort Morgan, Colo., Ravens rookie offensive lineman Ryan Jensen would never have been mistaken for a future NFL draft pick.
Although his older brother, Seth, had played defensive tackle at Nebraska, Jensen weighed just 210 pounds as a high school senior and was virtually ignored by major college recruiters.
So Jensen accepted a scholarship offer to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, where he bulked up to 317 pounds and emerged as an All-American. Selected by the Ravens in the sixth round Saturday, Jensen became the first player drafted from his school since the Kansas City Chiefs picked running back Herman Heard in the third round in 1984.
"I was the late bloomer," Jensen said Sunday afternoon in a telephone interview from Colorado. "Big schools didn't want to take a risk on me. I went down to Pueblo, and the rest is history."
Jensen is another example of the Ravens' recent drafting trend of investing a significant amount of resources into scouting smaller colleges. A year ago, the Ravens drafted three players from non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools: Delaware center Gino Gradkowski, South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson and Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson.
Four of their 10 draft picks this year hail from smaller schools: third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams from Division II Missouri Southern; fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk from Harvard in the Ivy League; Jensen, who played in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference; and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette from Elon out of the Southern Conference.
The reasons behind the Ravens' affinity for smaller school players stems from their desire to not overlook talent regardless of level. Unlike many of their NFL colleagues, the Super Bowl champions don't subscribe to any scouting services and require their scouts to dig harder to evaluate prospects at every school in their assigned area.
"I think scouting, in general, has gotten better across the league," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "It has forced us to adapt. We've had to increase the pool of players. Where we would probably have always just drafted Pac-12, Big 10 and SEC guys, we have looked at these smaller school guys, because players will come, as we've seen, from every area, every division, every part of the country.
"We've challenged our scouts to get more information, and to investigate every possible player to give us an advantage. I think our scouts have done a good job of doing that."
Five years ago, the Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco out of Delaware in the first round. In March, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was signed to a $120.6 million contract.
This fall, Flacco will take snaps this fall from another former Blue Hen in Gradkowski.
Some of it comes back to the investment Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti puts into the scouting department in terms of a travel budget for scouts and coaches to journey across the country to find players. There is no salary cap for scouting players.
"This goes to Steve Bisciotti and what he's allowed us to do as a personnel staff to be able to maintain as many guys as we have on our staff," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Our coverage is getting better because of the staff that we have, starting with our young guys all the way up to [director of college scouting] Joe [Hortiz] and Eric."
During the 2009 draft, the Ravens picked cornerback Lardarius Webb in the third round out of Nicholls State. Last year, they signed him to a $50 million contract.
Webb's success along with Flacco has made the Ravens less hesitant to go with players from smaller colleges. The Ravens also believe in the adage that an overlooked football player is typically a hungry football player intent on working hard to improve.
"For a long time we didn't draft any small school guys, or a very, very few," DeCosta said. "In the last couple of years we have drafted more. I think one of the reasons is because we really draft best available player. Honestly, I know it sounds crazy, but just about every single one of these picks was the highest-rated guy on the list, and coincidentally, some of these guys were small school guys."
The Ravens put a lot of time looking into Jensen, who will compete with Gradkowski at center and also play offensive guard after playing offensive tackle in college.
Run-game coordinator Juan Castillo went to Pueblo to work out Jensen privately, and the Ravens flew Jensen in for a visit at team headquarters earlier this month.
"A great organization like Baltimore is going to find the players who they want and think they can develop into great players," Jensen said. "In talking with Juan, his background as a Division II coach was a big influence on that aspect."