At the start of each offseason, as we look ahead to what the Ravens will do to get better, we talk largely about the players they could draft (and also whom they might consider if they take a dip in the free-agent waters). We sometimes forget that last year’s rookie class will have a bigger impact than this upcoming one.
Head coach John Harbaugh talked about that during Wednesday’s annual "State of the Ravens" news conference, that players often make the biggest leap in their development from the first year to the second.
It makes sense. Getting settled into the real world -- while much different than the one that you and I live in -- can be a difficult adjustment for some players and they also quickly learn that being a professional takes another level of dedication and preparation that what they put in during college. And it takes them time to learn the nuances of their position, from the techniques they must use to win their individual matchups to learning where they fit in the context of a new, more complex offense or defense. It can be a lot to digest.
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Of last year’s rookie class, free safety Matt Elam -- who should be a strong safety -- had the most on his plate in 2013. The first-round draft pick played 1,161 snaps on defense and special teams, by far the most among Ravens rookies. In fact, only a pair of starting offensive linemen, Gino Gradkowski and Marshal Yanda, got more snaps.
Wide receiver Marlon Brown, the undrafted free-agent surprise, was the only other Ravens rookie to play more than half of the snaps on either offense or defense in 2013.
We didn’t hear much from guys such as Arthur Brown, Brandon Williams, John Simon and Kyle Juszczyk, but Harbaugh believes they will make noise next year.
“The biggest improvement usually is between the first and second year,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “That’s something that is an old wives’ tale in coaching a little bit and football a little bit. Whether it’s the first week to the second week, the first game to the second game or the first year to the second year, these guys have been through it now one time. They’re going to make major strides. Everyone one of those guys.”
Harbaugh seems to have high hopes in particular for Brown, whose primary role beyond special teams was subbing in as a coverage linebacker in their nickel package.
The Ravens loved his athleticism coming out of the draft and believe he can be an every-down player, but they didn’t want him to overload him during his rookie year, so they narrowed his focus. He made 15 tackles as a rookie and forced one fumble while playing most of his snaps in coverage.
Now Harbaugh believes that Brown is ready to compete with Jameel McClain, assuming McClain will be back in 2014, and Josh Bynes for a spot in the starting lineup.
“Art Brown did a really good job in our nickel packages,” Harbaugh said. “He bounced around a little bit in college. And football, understanding the complexity of defensive schemes in this league, at this level, is going to take him to a starting role. He’s going to compete for a starting job. He’ll be competing for that [weak-side] linebacker starting job. I expect him to win the job, but he’s got to go win the job.”
Harbaugh also heaped praise on other rookies. He said that Williams, a third-round nose tackle, should be a part of the defensive line rotation next year. He raved about Juszczyk, the fourth-round fullback, saying that he played like a linebacker on special teams and that he should be a “huge part” of their offense going forward.
He said that nobody works harder than Simon, a fourth-round rush linebacker, and that late-round offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Rick Wagner could potentially start. He added that defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and wide receiver Aaron Mellette, two guys who spent the year on injured reserve, could also be in the mix for significant roles.
Sure, what else was Harbaugh going to say about these guys? Of course he is going to publicly pump their tires before they head off into their first full NFL offseason.
And not all second-year players are guaranteed to make a leap. You could argue that Courtney Upshaw, Kelechi Osemele and Bernard Pierce each experienced a so-called sophomore slump, for one reason or another, in 2013 after making major contributions in their rookie years.
But it is true that one year is not enough time to make definitive judgments on youngsters. The Ravens are built so that they have time to grow into roles instead of being thrown to the wolves as rookies. The memberos the 2013 draft class might be overlooked outside the Castle as we focus on May's NFL draft, but the Ravens are counting on some to step up next season.