Undrafted rookies carry equal weight with the Ravens

  • Tight end Matt Furstenburg is one of several undrafted rookie free agents hoping to make the Ravens' final roster.
Tight end Matt Furstenburg is one of several undrafted rookie… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
August 25, 2013|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

As the final round of the 2013 draft began in April and Matt Furstenburg agonized over where his NFL career would begin, the former Maryland tight end got a phone call that eased some of his anxiety.

So many people — from friends and former teammates to potential future employers — had already contacted him, but the voice on the other end made this call unique.

"John Harbaugh called me and said, 'We have to take a cornerback [here], but we want you," recalled Furstenburg, a three-year starter for the Terps who was one of eight undrafted free agents that survived Sunday's roster cuts. The Ravens currently have 77 players on their roster and they’ll need to get down to 75 on Tuesday and be at 53 on Aug. 31. "That was awesome. He was the only head coach that called."

Like the other undrafted free agents in camp, Furstenburg is bidding to survive Tuesday's roster cut and get one step closer to the Ravens' 53-man roster.

The Ravens' front office has earned plenty of praise for its decisions during the draft, but it is also in the minutes after the final pick has been made, a period that assistant general manager Eric DeCosta equated to a "feeding frenzy," when the organization has historically done some of its best work.

Few organizations have unearthed as many impact undrafted free agents as the Ravens have, and team officials take the process so seriously that they guard their recruiting methods almost as aggressively as their weekly game plans.

"I don't want to compare it to Coke's secret recipe, but we compare it to Coke's secret recipe," DeCosta said. "We try to treat the process as one of the most competitive things that we do all year. Besides the games [themselves], undrafted free agency is when you're competing against the other 31 teams for a very small amount of players with a very small amount of money. … For us, it's critically important."

Just how important?

Scan a box score from the Ravens' 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Kicker Justin Tucker made both of his field-goal attempts, all four of his extra points and booted four touchbacks. Dannell Ellerbe started at weak-side linebacker and had a team-leading nine tackles and a crucial quarterback pressure on Colin Kaepernick's final incompletion of the Ravens' decisive goal-line stand. Ma'ake Kemoeatu started at nose tackle while Albert McClellan and Josh Bynes played key roles on special teams. It was Bynes' tackle of returner Ted Ginn Jr. as time expired that secured the franchise's second Super Bowl title.

All five of those players initially signed with the Ravens as undrafted free agents, persevered through long odds to make the roster and eventually became key contributors. It's a familiar storyline for the Ravens, who have seen some of their college free agents go on to make Pro Bowls (Priest Holmes and Bart Scott) or become postseason heroes (Tucker and Ellerbe). Others, like center Mike Flynn, inside linebacker Jameel McClain and safety Will Demps, developed into reliable starters over guys who were drafted and paid much more money.

"The reason they've been successful is they work at it and they have a history and a tradition," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of college scouting from 1996 to 2002, and their director of player personnel in 2003 and 2004. "Really from the moment we got to Baltimore, we put a lot of emphasis on college free agents. I think the Ravens have always approached it like it's the eighth round of the draft and their scouts take great pride in unearthing a player or two. If you can get one of those players on your team, the impact of it on the salary cap is really significant."

The Ravens' current group of undrafted free agents includes wide receiver Marlon Brown, who has quickly moved up the depth chart after his senior season at Georgia was marred by a knee injury; Furstenburg, who is battling with veteran Billy Bajema for the third tight-end spot; and linebacker Brandon Copeland, a former Gilman standout who is getting a shot with his hometown team.

At least one undrafted free agent has made the Ravens' opening-game roster in all five seasons under Harbaugh and eight total have survived final cuts during that span.

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