There was a time when the Baltimore Ravens built their teams by almost exclusively taking players from big programs like Miami, Arizona State and Alabama. These days, their starting quarterback is from Delaware and the second-highest paid player on the team is from Nicholls State.
The Ravens take pride in finding big-time players from small schools. In this week's draft, no one should be surprised if the Ravens select players from Towson, North Dakota State or Lindenwood. For the record, the Division II Lions of Lindenwood play in Saint Charles, Mo.
In the last two drafts, seven of the 18 players taken by the Ravens have come from programs below the Division I FBS (formerly I-A) level. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams, a 2013 third-round pick from Missouri Southern, could join quarterback Joe Flacco and cornerback Lardarius Webb as another small-school starter for the Ravens. Asa Jackson, a 2012 fifth-round pick out of Cal Poly, has a chance to be the team's third cornerback.
"We believe in it," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' assistant general manager. "We look at all players across the board, regardless of level of competition, division or conference, and pick the best players.”
The Ravens have been linked to small-school prospects this year. They had a pre-draft visits with Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Towson running back Terrance West. There's a chance that the Ravens, who need help on the offensive line and secondary, could take North Dakota State offensive tackle Billy Turner or Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir somewhere around the third round.
Ravens officials believe their success with small-school players comes from the fact that they put in the same amount of work as they do with big schools. Their scouts go to the schools and get to know the coaches.
"Obviously, the biggest challenge would be level of competition," DeCosta said. "How does that player play? How is he going to play against better players? Is he going to be able to adjust? All-Star games are a nice way of seeing that play out, so we get the chance to see a d-school guy at the Senior Bowl, you get a chance to see him at the combine to compare against the big-school guys. That's always a big challenge."
The Ravens have missed on small-school prospects, too. David Pittman, a 2006 third-round cornerback out of Northwestern State, started one game, and Christian Thompson, a 2012 fourth-round safety from South Carolina State, didn't last two full seasons.
But the Ravens' success rate with small-school prospects is similar to what they have with players from major programs. In some instances, the Ravens see a faster rate of growth with players from smaller schools.
"At small schools, sometimes they don't have the luxury of having a nice weight room, nutritional programs or support staff," DeCosta said. "We feel like sometimes these guys come into our facility, our building, with our coaches and our doctors and trainers, and get better quickly because they have the advantage of all these new things."