If one were to do a re-grade of the Baltimore Ravens 1996 Draft, it would be hard not to give them an A+ for their first round selections alone. The franchise, who had just moved from Cleveland months prior, made two picks in the first round: UCLA OT Jonathan Ogden fourth overall, and Miami (Fla.) LB Ray Lewis with the 22nd selection. Not too shabby looking back on it.
One writer was not impressed with the Ravens’ haul. Former ESPN NFL analyst Len Pasquarelli, then with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote a “draft grades” column the day after the end of the draft. Here’s his Ravens grade…
“Baltimore: C…Jonathan Ogden, OT, Ray Lewis LB…Passed on the draft’s best player, and where does Ogden play?”
Ogden ended up playing left tackle for the Ravens where he made 11 Pro Bowls and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2013. He is considered by many to be one of the best offensive tackles ever to play in the league.
Ray Lewis turned out alright as well. The legendary middle linebacker made 13 Pro Bowls, won Super Bowl MVP in 2000, and was named defensive player of the year three times (2000, 2001, 2003). Lewis is well on his way to being inducted into Hall of Fame when eligible and, like Ogden, is considered by most to be one of the best to ever play his position.
And about that “draft’s best player” that Pasquarelli said the Ravens passed on. All signs point to that being Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, whom the St. Louis Rams took with the sixth pick. Phillips was a talented player who came into draft with numerous character concerns, most notably a lenghty suspension during the 1995 Cornhuskers season for an incident of domestic abuse involving his girlfriend. Here’s Pasquarelli, from an April 11, 1996 article before the draft, examining Phillips…
“But when it comes to Nebraska tailback Lawrence Phillips, the top player in this year’s draft and also the most controversial, the degree of sleuthing by league scouts may be unprecedented.”
Despite his off-field issues, Pasquarelli apparently was sold on Phillips as a future NFL star as he gave the Rams draft performance an A+ after the Phillips “fell into their laps” at six.
Phillips’ character concerns turned out to be valid. After showing some promise during the 1996 season and the first half of the 1997 campaign, the Rams ended up releasing him in the middle of the 1997 season partly because, as then reported by the New York Times, he was “exhibiting troubling behavior” and “was not consistent on it.” He was then signed by the Dolphins, but didn’t last long as the team released Phillips after an assault arrest after a few games. After a brief stint with the 49ers, Phillips was out of the NFL by 1999 and by 2005 he was doing a 30-year prison sentence in California for multiple violent offenses. In 2015, he was charged with murdering his prison cellmate, and in January 2016, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell.
The Lawrence Phillips story just goes to show how tricky evaluating a player with character concerns before the draft must be. In this case, the Rams and Len Pasquarelli probably woud take a do over. The Ravens, on the other hand, do not.