Football 101: No. 17, Ray Lewis
OK, so you know the deal on the Football 101. Here’s the complete archive. Thanks for reading, and thanks for subscribing!
Reminder that from here on, we’ll have a new Football 101 essay every week throughout the NFL season, leading right up to Super Bowl Sunday. And if you want to track the countdown, Brilliant Reader Ed B put together this awesome spreadsheet.
In the 1996 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens took Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall pick and Ray Lewis with the 26th overall pick. It is only the second time in the Super Bowl Era that a team drafted two Hall of Famers in the same first round.
The first time it happened was just one year earlier, when Tampa Bay drafted Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.
It is truly amazing how much one round of the draft can change the entire complexion of a franchise. The Bucs were the NFL’s laughingstock going into the 1995 draft. They had losing records THIRTEEN SEASONS IN A ROW and had six different coaches over that time. The hiring of Tony Dungy, along with the drafting of Sapp and Brooks, changed everything. In 1997, they made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and then made the playoffs four of five seasons, culminating in a Super Bowl victory, all of it led by their defense, led by Sapp and Brooks.
The 1996 draft, meanwhile, was the first for the Baltimore Ravens — they were the Cleveland Browns before that year. They had absolutely no idea what they were going to be about. Going into that draft, the word on the street was that they were probably going to select Nebraska’s troubled running back Lawrence Phillips, who some scouts were calling the most talented running back to come out of the draft since Earl Campbell.
The Ravens had made a very public showing of investigating Phillips, who was on probation for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Ravens owner Art Modell even personally met with Phillips and declared that he was “subject to quick and complete rehabilitation,” and that he would be “a class-A citizen and a man the city of Baltimore would be proud of.”
But in the end they took Ogden anyway.*
*Phillips' sad and troubled life only grew more tragic; he was later convicted of assault and received a 31-year sentence. While in prison in 2015, he was charged with murdering his cellmate. Shortly after that, he committed suicide.
As for Ray Lewis, absolutely nobody had him on the Baltimore Ravens’ radar. He was not mentioned a single time in the Baltimore Sun’s predraft coverage and not a single mock draft I can find had the Ravens selecting him. Baltimore’s coach, Ted Marchibroda, would later say that the Ravens were surprised he made it all the way to their pick … but pretty much every mock draft had him AVAILABLE for the Ravens’ pick. It’s just that none of them thought the Ravens would take him.
Lewis was a superstar at the University of Miami. He was a two-time All-American and in his junior year he finished second in the Butkus Award voting behind Illinois’ Kevin Hardy (who went second in that draft). He was already a force of nature — one of those larger-than-life players who seems to get in on every tackle, who singlehandedly intimidates offenses, who infuses everyone around him with a deep fury.
“He commands respect when he’s in the huddle,” Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. “He’s all business. He knows what his profession is, and he’s going to attack it.”
So why did he drop to the bottom of the first round? If you go back and look at what teams were saying, it seems that a lot of people thought he was too short to be a great player in the NFL.
In retrospect, it might have been something else: