If you're a sucker for stories about low-round draft picks who have the potential to become key contributors early on in their pro careers (and who isn't a sucker for that, really?), I might have this year's guy for you.
Pernell McPhee was selected by the Ravens with the 165th overall pick in this year's draft. Three years ago at this time, he was preparing for his second season of junior college football at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. Now, the fifth-round defensive end is wreaking havoc in the backfield during training camp practices and showing up big in preseason action.
And his coaches are taking notice.
"He's an explosive guy," head coach John Harbaugh said. "I thought he'd be a good run player, and he has been a good run player for us, but he has been a little bit of a better pass rusher - even in training camp - than we thought he would be. Very powerful and explosive hands.
"I am looking forward to seeing if that shows up in some of these games here, but he is probably better - even than we expected."
It's surprising to see McPhee making an impact so early on for a couple reasons. First of all, he played just two years at a Division I college, and secondly, his numbers dropped dramatically once he reached that level.
After dominating his competition at JuCo ball - posting a whopping 33.5 sacks during his two seasons at Itawamba CC - and getting his grades up, McPhee played his final two years at Mississippi State. He was named to the All-SEC first-team his senior season and served as a team captain, but recorded a total of just seven sacks in those two years at MSU, including two in his senior year.
Still, the Ravens saw the 6-foot-3, 280-lb. defensive end's potential, and they selected him with the second of their back-to-back fifth-round picks this year, after taking cornerback Chykie Brown 164th overall. Despite missing all of OTAs and minicamps this offseason due to the lockout, McPhee has come in and made nearly an instant impact.
"The guy has what we call Raven traits," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He plays like a Raven. I mean, he's relentless. He's a violent, violent football player. This guy is a great kid. He doesn't say anything; he just comes in here every day and he's like a sponge. With his coaches, (defensive line) coach (Clarence) Brooks and (outside linebackers) coach (Ted) Monachino, and then with the veteran guys, he's learning. He's soaking everything up, and then he comes out to practice and he's just going at a thousand miles per hour."
That "violence" was put on display yesterday, when McPhee got tangled up with offensive lineman Oniel Cousins and had to be separated from the veteran. The work ethic was exhibited in McPhee's Ravens debut Thursday, when he registered one tackle in a 13-6 preseason loss to the Eagles. But it was a play that didn't officially go down on the stat sheet which demonstrated the type of ability that McPhee possesses, even at a very early stage in his pro career.
Early in the third quarter, with the Eagles having the ball at the Baltimore 6-yard line, McPhee got around the edge, muscled his way to Philadelphia quarterback Mike Kafka and appeared to strip Kafka of the ball. Cornerback Lardarius Webb picked it up and returned the fumble 93 yards for a touchdown.
The play was reviewed and eventually overturned by the officials, and in the stats book, McPhee did not get credit for a sack or a forced fumble. Kafka was given an incomplete pass and the Eagles kept the ball.
Regardless, the play serves as an example of the type of strength and athleticism that McPhee brings to the table on every play. He's currently in a battle for playing time with a host of experienced defensive linemen, but the rookie's attitude and his work ethic have caught the eye of Pagano and the coaches.
"He's nonstop, and he's getting better every day," Pagano said. "I think his production in the game is just a byproduct of what he's doing during the week."