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Final draft: Ozzie Newsome puts last touches on his historic Ravens legacy

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- As Ozzie Newsome nears his final draft as Baltimore Ravens general manager, he knows he has to nail these picks to put the franchise back on the championship path before he steps down at the end of the season.

Newsome just won't let his emotions enter the draft room, a defining part of his legacy as one of the best decision-makers in NFL history.

"It's all about the preparation," Newsome said, "and it's all about who is that first player that we're going to take with that first-round pick –- if we pick in the first round."

This marks more than an end to an era. This is the finale for the most important person in franchise history. The Ravens have had two owners, three head coaches and countless star players. For 22 years of existence, the Ravens have only had one general manager and Newsome has been a masterful architect, relying on his calm demeanor, keen eye for talent, unwavering patience and desire for inclusiveness.

Newsome's commitment makes him one of the easiest people to find in the Ravens facility. He's either watching practice (because no one should know his players better than him), exercising on the treadmill (where he does his best thinking) or breaking down tape in his office (so he can do his own scouting of college players).

Anywhere he goes, he's typically the most qualified football person in the room. He's just a leader who doesn't need to constantly prove he's one. A Hall of Fame tight end as well as a former scout and assistant coach, Newsome often sits back in meetings to take in every opinion instead of trying to talk others into accepting his way of thinking.

Newsome, 62, is widely known as the best listener in the Ravens' building. Some suggest he's the best listener you'll ever know. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick compared Newsome to John Nash, the Nobel laureate in economics who was the subject of "A Beautiful Mind." He absorbs the information and weighs it against his life experience to formulate a decision.

Newsome's success has become the standard for decision-makers around the NFL. He is the only general manager to win a Super Bowl, totally rebuild the roster and hoist up another Lombardi Trophy more than a decade later.

His drafts have produced 18 Pro Bowl players, including the selection of first-ballot Hall of Fame ones -- offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis -- with his first two picks. The 22 players he's chosen in the first round -- from Ogden to Ray Lewis to Jamal Lewis to Ed Reed to Terrell Suggs to Haloti Ngata to Joe Flacco -- have earned 60 combined Pro Bowl invitations and have been named Super Bowl MVP, NFL defensive player of the year, NFL offensive player of the year and NFL defensive rookie of the year.

"I would make the argument that if he wasn't in the Hall of Fame as a player, he would be in as a general manager," said Bill Polian, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame inductee. "That's maybe the rarest of occurrences."

The unwritten rule with Newsome is you'll always be heard. You just might not get your way, and that includes those who have the ultimate authority. Newsome has twice decided not to select the preferred pick of a Ravens owner, and in each case he chose players who became among the best to ever suit up at their position.

Newsome's front-office career was shaped by his first selection. In the 1996 draft, he insisted on taking Ogden with the No. 4 overall pick even though owner Art Modell wanted running back Lawrence Phillips. Newsome convinced Modell by telling him that Ogden had a decent shot at going to the Hall of Fame. "What a Babe Ruth call that was," Modell said afterward.

Six years later, Newsome faced a similar situation with the No. 24 pick, where owner Steve Bisciotti wanted to select Lito Sheppard over Ed Reed because cornerback is a more important position than safety. Why did Newsome end up taking Reed? "Because I am true to my board," he said. Sheppard went to two Pro Bowls in his 10-year career, and Reed is expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame next year.

"Ozzie's great success in player personnel is a tribute to his commitment, hard work and knowledge of the game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who put Newsome on his staff following his retirement from playing. "It is a credit to Ozzie's character that having played the game at an elite level was a help to his development as a scout and not a hindrance. To have a Hall of Fame playing career and then go on to such sustained success as a general manager has to put Ozzie on a very short and distinguished list in 100 years of the NFL."

Humble beginnings

Newsome's first job was breaking down film for Belichick.

The Browns' all-time leading receiver went from scoring game-winning touchdowns in front of the Dawg Pound to writing down the number and position of every player on every play. No one heard a complaint from Newsome.

"Following his retirement from playing, Ozzie immediately immersed himself in everything that was required of him and other scouts, to learn the essence of player personnel from the most entry level," Belichick said. "As he gained experience, Ozzie earned additional responsibility and eventually become one of the best in the game."

Compliments often make Newsome uncomfortable, and he makes sure those around him have the same humility. Newsome has a way of quickly bringing you down if you get out of line.

Arizona Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough, who worked seven seasons as a scout under Newsome, once stood on the table to make the point that he wanted this one player. A year later, that same player was cut.

When the Ravens addressed that position in a meeting the following season, Newsome looked up at McDonough and said, "Hopefully, you're not going to be standing on the table again."

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens vice president of public relations who has known Newsome for nearly four decades, has never heard Newsome brag about any of his accomplishments beyond one instance six years ago.

On the day that Modell died, Newsome was invited to visit. Modell was in and out of consciousness, and Newsome wanted to make sure he knew he was there.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Newsome held Modell's left hand with both of his. "Art, this is Ozzie. I just wanted you to know what good hands feel like," Newsome said.

Byrne remembers seeing a smile appear on Modell's face.

In Ozzie we (usually) trust

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has always had complete faith in Newsome, except for that time in 2006.

Baltimore had lost Will Demps in free agency and needed a starting safety. Ryan thought Newsome was going to take one in the fourth round, but he decided to go with a running back, even though the team had already addressed that position in free agency.

"When in the hell are we going to get a safety?" Ryan remembers asking Newsome.

The next pick was Dawan Landry, who ended up totaling 48 tackles, five interceptions and three sacks in his rookie season. Newsome knew Landry had run a terrible 40-yard dash and that he could get him in the fifth round.

"He never let me down," Ryan said. "I should've known better."

One of Newsome's best decisions ranks among his most difficult. In the 1999 draft, the Atlanta Falcons offered their first-round pick in 2000 for Baltimore's second-rounder in 1999.

The Ravens' scouts didn't want this trade because the team had already used three picks in the 1999 draft to acquire players. The coaches didn't endorse the move, either, because they wanted players who could help them that season.

Newsome made the deal anyway, and Billick and director of college scouting Phil Savage walked out in disgust. It was the only time Newsome went to a news conference alone.

How did it work out? The Ravens used the Falcons' pick (which turned out to be the No. 5 overall in 2000) on running back Jamal Lewis, who carried Baltimore's offense in the franchise's first Super Bowl run.

Draft drought

Newsome's time as general manager is ending at a period when his selections rank among his most disappointing.

In his first 13 drafts, he chose 16 players who would become Pro Bowl players for the Ravens. In his past nine, only two draft picks (linebacker C.J. Mosley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk) have become Pro Bowl players for Baltimore.

The regrettable choices include first-round busts Matt Elam, a safety who is out of the league after missing too many tackles, and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who was benched after dropping too many passes. These misses have resulted in a three-year playoff drought in which Baltimore has gone 22-26 (.458).

"When we were having success, we were getting all the credit," Newsome said. "When we're not having success, we take all the blame. It falls right on me."

Under Newsome, the Ravens went from a fledgling relocated team to a Super Bowl champion in four years. Newsome helped construct one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history.

After a massive salary-cap purge, Newsome once again put together a championship team. This time, Baltimore captured the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of Flacco and one of the best postseason runs by a quarterback.

Those who have worked with Newsome believe it's important for him to build the Ravens into a playoff team in his final season as general manager. The only time the Ravens failed to reach the postseason in four straight seasons came immediately after the Ravens had relocated from Cleveland.

"We have to do a better job of bringing in players," Newsome said. "Whether that's through the draft, through free agency or through trade, we have to do better, and that will help them to do better. Hopefully when we're sitting here in game 16, hopefully we're already in the playoffs and not trying to play to get in the playoffs."

Does the recent stretch of frustrating drafts tarnish Newsome's impressive track record?

"You look at the big picture, he’s one of the most successful general managers of all time," Polian said. "Keeping that team competitive over a long, long period of time -- that's the hardest thing for a general manager, and he's done it."

Undecided future role

Newsome is stepping down as general manager. He isn't stepping away from the team.

When assistant general manager Eric DeCosta takes over, Newsome will stay in a yet-to-be-named position.

"Ozzie isn't going anywhere," team president Dick Cass said. "He's going to have an important role with the team. Eric will have the decision-making authority, but he will lean on Ozzie for advice."

This transition is the culmination of a plan that dates back five years ago when Bisciotti wanted a definitive timetable for DeCosta. Bisciotti felt the time was right after DeCosta declined to interview for general manager positions elsewhere and remained a loyal second-in-command.

Newsome insists his focus is on the upcoming draft and not his job description in 2019.

"What's going to occur a year from now is not in my thought process," Newsome said. "It's just making this the best draft we can this year."

Just like Newsome welcomed opinions from DeCosta and others throughout the years, DeCosta wants to be as inclusive with Newsome going forward.

"I would love to have Ozzie here as much as he wants to be here next year in whatever capacity he wants to be in," DeCosta said. "There's value, there's wisdom. He's a great evaluator, he's a wonderful leader, he's a great person. All those qualities make him, in my mind, a legend."