When the scouting reports on Joe Flacco began to come in to Ozzie Newsome's office in the fall of 2007, the Ravens' general manager was impressed. And by the time Delaware's season was over and Flacco had thrown for 23 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards, Newsome realized there could be a spot for Flacco as his franchise quarterback.
But as the preparations began for the 2008 draft, Newsome instructed his scouts to look for any imperfections in Flacco's mechanics, personality or background. This was not your run-of-the-mill predraft evaluation.
"When you're dealing with a player from a smaller school, what you try to do is poke holes in him," Newsome said. "You don't know as much about him because he isn't playing for a bigger program, so you really have to make sure about a guy."
Newsome took Flacco in the first round, and he helped the Ravens reach the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. Last year, he led them back to the playoffs.
It was yet another successful draft-day story of a player who didn't come from a notable NCAA Division I program. Smaller schools can't be ignored, because they have produced some of the best players in NFL history. Ever hear of Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Andre Reed (Kutztown), Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore) and Phil Simms (Morehead State)?
"The bottom line is if a player has the requisite qualities to play from a physical standpoint, what you're trying to figure out is if they can make the leap," Colts president Bill Polian said. "Many times it will take a while, but if you see there is talent, then you have to be willing to take the chance that they can make the transition to the NFL."
Polian has been one of the best evaluators of small-school prospects during a career with the Bills, Panthers and Colts. Among players he has plucked from obscure programs: Reed, part of the Bills' four AFC championship teams; former Bills defensive end Phil Hansen (North Dakota State) and Colts receiver Pierre Garçon (Mount Union).
"I don't know if there's any secret to success, because you're going to miss on as many as you hit on," Polian said. "But you have to be willing to take a chance, and you have to be patient sometimes."
He pointed to Garçon as an example of waiting on talent to emerge. The 2008 sixth-round pick had four catches as a rookie.
"In Garçon's case, it took a full year," Polian said. "He looked so uncomfortable coming in as a rookie that you probably would have cut him right on the spot if you judged it there. But we recognized there would be some growing pains."
With 47 catches and four touchdowns, Garçon emerged last season as one of Peyton Manning's go-to receivers. In the playoffs, he had 21 catches for 251 yards and two TDs; including 11 catches in a 30-17 win over the Jets in the AFC title game.
"It's a little more of a challenge and much more of a projection," said Chris Polian, Bill's son and the Colts' general manager. "It's such a different setting they're in, a small school as opposed to a Division I school. But in some ways, it's more fun for a scout to discover a guy like that."
And sometimes it's just dumb luck that you find an unheralded player from a small school. The ultimate example: In 1953, when the draft was 30 rounds, the Giants had no idea whom to pick in the 27th round. Someone in their personnel department looked at a weekly newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, and noticed a 6-3, 225-pound tackle from obscure Morgan State who was selected to the Black All-America team in 1952.
Is there another future Hall of Famer among this year's small-college class? You never know.