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Ravens' Lardarius Webb hyped as a top NFL prospect

Everybody loves Lardarius Webb. The Ravens cornerback and kick returner started to break out last season, then he tore his ACL in Week 15 against the Bears, ending his rookie season.

Before the injury, Webb {photo, at left, by The Baltimore Sun} won a lot of fans over with his cover skills, toughness and swagger. The media took notice, too.

Earlier this week, Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders listed Webb 11th on his list of the NFL's top prospects. Who exactly qualifies as an NFL prospect? When I hear that, I think of the college kids. But here are Barnwell's criteria: 1) They have to be in the second, third, or fourth year of their careers. 2) They were drafted in the third round or later, or went undrafted. 3) They have started fewer than five games in the NFL. 4) They still have to be on their rookie contracts. 5) They have to be related to Mitch Richmond.

OK, I made that last one up (but Webb really is a cousin of the former NBA player).

Here's the skinny on Webb — who is coming off major surgery and could start on the PUP list this season — according to Barnwell:

The Ravens don't often make space for young players in their lineup. Sure, first-round picks like Haloti Ngata head directly to the top of the depth chart, but most guys — even future stars like Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs — had to serve an apprenticeship as part-time players before becoming regulars.

That makes Webb's ascension into the starting lineup even more impressive. The Ravens had enough faith in Webb to push him ahead of Fabian Washington during the year, and while both players ended up tearing their ACLs, Webb had an extremely promising season (albeit with a small sample size). His 5.1 adjusted yards per attempt were better than any other Ravens corner, and he had 21 Stops in the running game (explained here), an impressive figure for an undersized corner playing limited duty.

He also brings extra value to the return game. Webb may need part of this year to heal, but if everything goes well, he should be a starter by the second half of this season, and he won't let go of his spot for a number of years. 

Webb certainly is an impressive player and an impressive young man. Chalk him up as another draft day steal for Ozzie Newsome, still one of the best in the biz. Webb's contributions may be limited in 2010; getting back to 100 percent after this kind of surgery can sometimes take two years. There's no question Webb is a big part of the Ravens' plans going forward. Worst-case scenario (health permitting, of course): He'll be an average starter in the NFL — not too shabby for an under-the-radar third-round pick.

Steelers second-year receiver Mike Wallace, whom Webb could be lining up against often in the coming years, surprisingly topped Football Outsiders' prospects list. Here's what Barnwell had to say about Wallace:

What Wallace did a on a per-play basis last year as a rookie was pretty remarkable. He led the league in yards per catch (19.4) and finished fourth in DVOA (29.6 percent) among qualifying receivers. Wallace finished 16th in DYAR, our advanced metric measuring total value, despite being thrown only 72 passes. ...

And yet, there are still places we can expect him to go in 2010, even with Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the beginning of the season. His 54 percent catch rate was nice for a rookie, but low considering the offense he was in; he should be closer to 60 percent next year. He only averaged 3.4 YAC despite running routes as deep as anyone in football, and that should improve. The departure of Santonio Holmes and the injury to Limas Sweed virtually guarantee him 30 more targets than he had as a rookie.

The list of players that averaged more than 18 yards per catch as a rookie with more than 30 receptions includes quite a few stars with similar stat lines to Wallace's rookie year, including Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice. Wallace isn't in their category, but he's almost a sure thing to be a valuable starter. He has a fair amount of potential as a franchise player going forward.

Update: I should have mentioned it when I initially posted, but Barnwell ranked the Ravens fourth in the NFL in his organizational rankings. Here's what he said about that:

Ozzie Newsome is the best general manager in football, and year after year, his drafts deliver promising new players to an organization that seems to have more talent than opportunities. Although the Ravens are known for their defense, it's the offense that has most of the team's young talent these days. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice get the headlines at quarterback and running back, respectively, but no team has a pair of young tackles that match up with Michael Oher and Jared Gaither, both 24.

The problem with the defensive talent might just be getting on the field; the Ravens spent their two second-rounders this year on front seven talent, linebacker Sergio Kindle and massive nose tackle Terrence Cody, but those guys will need to serve their apprenticeships before seeing serious snap totals. One player who might break through this season is corner Lardarius Webb, who is coming off of a torn ACL but should be starting by the end of the season. 

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