Ravens rookies didn't make expected impact, hope to benefit from 'learning experience'

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Fourth-round pick Buck Allen made the most impact of any Ravens rookie, finishing with 867 total yards.

On the heels of a 2014 rookie class that included several players filling pivotal roles on both sides of the ball during a playoff run, the Ravens' 2015 draft class not only had a high bar to meet, but carried a lofty responsibility.

If this year's crop of rookies had been able to meet that same standard, allowing the team's young core to grow better and larger, the Ravens would've been set as a franchise for years to come.

But the 2015 season, in which the Ravens went 5-11 thanks in part to unprecedented injuries, forced many of the rookies into positions larger than what the team had planned and diminished their returns on the field.

That leaves the hope for the future of those rookies hinging on them absorbing what they learned about being professionals and improving on what they realized were their shortcomings.

"It was a learning experience, is the way I look at it," tight end Maxx Williams, the team's second-round pick (No. 55 overall) said. "You come in thinking you know football and you learn real quickly that there's a lot to learn. It's a credit to our leaders and the veterans on our team to help us along the way. I look back at it, wish I could change some things, enjoyed all of it and learned a lot."

With first-round NFL Draft pick Breshad Perriman out all season with a partially torn PCL, Williams had the highest draft pedigree of any Ravens rookie on the field. Owner Steve Bisciotti indicated that Perriman would have been a starting wide receiver alongside Steve Smith Sr. And from what general manager-executive vice president Ozzie Newsome saw on the first day of training camp before Perriman was injured, that lofty billing seemed justified.

Even the play that caused the injury was initially cause for excitement to Ravens officials.

"[He] made an incredible catch on the right sideline, and he went to the ground and the knee hit first," Newsome said. "I was excited [and thought]: 'He's made another great play down the field; that's what we needed for him to do.'"

That left Williams as the next-highest pick, and the 21-year-old tight end grew into a bigger role as the season went along. He battled some nagging injuries that cost him two games, but finished the season with a six-catch, 53-yard game in Week 17 against Cincinnati that gave him 32 catches for 268 yards and a touchdown on the season.

He said he became more comfortable as the season went on, and Newsome said they saw "he's going to be a solid player for us."

"I'm only 21, so hopefully I can get bigger, faster, stronger and learn how to run routes better, get better at technique, everything," Williams said. "I'm so young, hopefully I can improve a lot coming into next year."

The next pick, defensive tackle Carl Davis, "has a high ceiling that we think he will be able to get to," Newsome said.

Davis, the 90th overall pick, was the most prominent rookie early in the season. He started twice early in the season and was a big part of the defensive line rotation due to injuries to defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and defensive end Chris Canty. But when everyone was healthy, Davis found himself inactive for three games.

That time out of games helped Davis become a smarter player, he said, and helped bring into focus what he needs to do to make a more consistent impact.

Newsome's trio of fourth-round picks — outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, running back Buck Allen, and cornerback Tray Walker — ranged the full spectrum of productivity as rookies.

Smith played 15 games, and finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks, but four of those sacks came in two games 10 weeks apart. Bisciotti said Smith never really got to shine as the Pernell McPhee replacement who rushed from all over the field because of the Week One season-ending injury to outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Allen had the most impactful season of all the rookies. Including the Week 11 game against the St. Louis Rams when starter Justin Forsett broke his arm and Allen assumed the lead running back role, Allen carried 95 times for 332 yards and a touchdown and had 37 catches for 295 yards and two scores. On the season, he had 867 total yards and three touchdowns.

And though Walker, a small-school cornerback whose first year was primarily developmental, played only eight defensive snaps, Newsome said they "still hold a lot of promise for Tray."

Walker, who played eight games on special teams, called the year a "learning step for me."

"At some points, it was [frustrating]," Walker said. "But I just used that as an edge for me. Just learn from that and just hope and wish that I come back strong for next year, and [am] able to get on the field and make the plays that they want me to make."

Tight end Nick Boyle, selected in the fifth round out of Delaware, was the more polished of the rookie tight ends at the outset of the season before a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs cut his season short. And Newsome said wide receiver Darren Waller was one of the team's best special teams players before a hamstring injury ended his season in Week 8.

Even with ample opportunities, the rookie class' impact fell short of the opportunities presented in many spots. But Williams' perspective on the season is that the failure to reach their team playoff goal can make everyone, even the youngest among them, better in the long run.

"The best thing we can take is, like I said before, a credit to the leaders and what kind of team and organization the Ravens is, knowing that we did go through hard times but we stuck together," Williams said. "No one flinched and we really built the team."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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