Purple Reign: Newsome the key to Ravens' sustained success

The Baltimore Ravens are in the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. During the past 13 years, the Ravens have had 10 winning seasons -- and won the Lombardi Trophy by defeating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV -- while surviving steady changes.

The organization has changed ownership, head coaches and numerous starting quarterbacks -- nine to be exact. But there have been two main constants during their current reign: Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and general manager/executive vice president Ozzie Newsome.

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Lewis has certainly made an impact on the field, and Newsome has proven to be arguably the NFL's best executive and talent evaluator over the past two decades. And looking at the Ravens' Super Bowl roster, it's easy to see why.

Of the 53 players on the Ravens' active roster, 39 (72.2 percent of the roster) were drafted or signed as rookie free agents by Baltimore. Newsome has done an excellent job finding starters in the early stages of draft weekend. That's easily underscored by reviewing the past drafts.

In 2008, Newsome drafted quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice in the top two rounds. Even though they are the only two players from that Baltimore draft class of 10 still on the roster, it was a turning point for the future of the Ravens' offense. Flacco and Rice are arguably the 2012 team's most valuable players; they're certainly the primary reasons Baltimore is in the Super Bowl. At the time, pundits had arguments that Flacco was a reach in the top 20 and Rice was too small and slow to be a starter.

In 2009, Newsome drafted offensive tackle Michael Oher , outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Lardarius Webb in the first three rounds; all three are starters. Despite spending this season on injured reserve, Webb, who signed a $50-million contract extension before the '12 season, is considered one of the league's top young cornerbacks. Kruger is set to earn a lucrative deal in a few weeks on the open market.

In 2010, the Ravens didn't have a first-round pick, but Newsome did find two productive tight ends in the third and fourth rounds:  Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta . The New England Patriots drafted tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the same draft, so the Dickson/Pitta combo often goes overlooked, although they combined for 82 catches and 894 yards in 2012.

In 2011, Newsome drafted explosive wide receiver Torrey Smith in the second round. He was the fifth receiver off the board that year and considered a reach by some. But other than phenoms A.J. Green and Julio Jones , Smith has been the most productive receiver from that draft class. He led the team in yards per catch (17.4) and touchdowns (eight) this season.

In 2012, Newsome traded out of the first round and landed linebacker Courtney Upshaw in the second, the player many believed the Ravens were targeting all along. Also in the second round, Baltimore added offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele , who started every game this season, seeing time at both guard and tackle.

Newsome has been effective not just in the early rounds but also in the mid-to-late stages of the NFL Draft. Of the 39 players on the active roster who began their careers in Baltimore, 21 were drafted in the final four rounds or signed as undrafted free agents. Newsome is known for his late-round hidden gems -- among them, defensive end Pernell McPhee (fifth round, 2011), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (undrafted free agent, 2009) and kicker Justin Tuck er (UDFA, 2012).

Any coronation of the Ravens should be a celebration of Newsome as the winner behind the championship roster.

During his four seasons as a tight end at Alabama, Newsome collected 102 career catches and led the Crimson Tide to a .875 winning percentage (42-6). He was a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 1978 NFL Draft and quickly established himself as one of the league's best, earning All-Pro honors seven consecutive years (1979-1985). Newsome was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999 and still holds several Cleveland franchise records, including career catches (662) and yards (7,980).

Newsome spent his entire 13-year NFL career in Cleveland, never missing a game, and retired in 1990 before joining the Browns in a front office role. He cut his teeth under Ernie Accorsi and Bill Belichick in Cleveland, working his way up through the ranks and learning along the way. Newsome recognizes both as reasons for his prepared and long-term success.

"We know how great Ernie was, and you see how good Bill has been, but being able to learn from both of those guys really helped prepare me," Newsome said. "The other thing that I think was so beneficial is that whole group that came over from Cleveland, me, Phil (Savage), (Jim Schwartz,) Kirk Ferentz, Mike Sheppard, Pat Hill -- we were all just slappies together. We had all worked together. So when we moved over, it was like, 'OK, you know what? I have a title, but I'm just one of you guys. Let's go to work.' And it was fun."

Newsome became the vice president of player personnel soon after the franchise was moved to Baltimore, and he was responsible for the Ravens' successful draft classes. In 2002, Modell promoted Newsome to general manager, the first African American in the NFL to hold that position.

"Ozzie is the foundation of the Ravens," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's been the GM since the beginning. He drafted Ray [Lewis]. He drafted Jonathan Ogden. He's drafted every player. He's made every free-agent signing that's come through here."

Over the past few seasons, Newsome also added the Ravens' leading wide receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade from Arizona), former All-Pro center Matt Birk (free agent) and veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie (free agent). But the core strength of the Ravens' identity has been assembled in the draft through Newsome's forward-thinking approach that always has him peeking a few years down the road.

"I can look and know that we are not going to be able to retain some players, so that's the reason why we go draft players and they sit around for two years and you all wonder why's he not playing?" Newsome said. "Oh, he will play at some point. I worry about winning today, but I've got to also worry about winning tomorrow, and I've got to be able to balance those books every year."

Regardless of what happens on Super Sunday, Newsome has some difficult decisions on the horizon: How to replace Ray Lewis on defense? Is it worth bringing 34-year-old Ed Reed back to Baltimore? And is it possible to re-sign Flacco to a reasonable contract that makes both sides happy?

But whatever the outcome of those questions, Newsome will always do what he does best: Build through the draft and help the Ravens win football games. After all these years, Newsome still enjoys his job, and he has grown to appreciate the relationships along the way.

"Evaluating players is one thing, doing contracts is another, going down to the principal's office and spending time with Steve [Bisciotti] is another thing," Newsome said. "But to be there with those guys and to watch those players grow up, you can't separate that. You can't find anything better than that."

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