Drafting and developing young players is the lifeblood of any successful NFL team, and there is no question the Ravens have a very good track record of not only landing good players with their first-round picks, but also unearthing hidden gems in the later rounds and in free agency.
That's a credit to general manager Ozzie Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, director of pro personnel Vince Newsome, and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, but it's also a credit to the Ravens coaching staff. The 2011 team obviously still has a veteran core of leaders, but Baltimore has also managed to inject a lot of youth into their squad this year while still winning football games. Asked about that process this week, John Harbaugh described it a bit like nudging a baby bird out of the nest, hoping they'll take flight instead of crashing to the ground.
"You throw them in there, you push them out there," Harbaugh said of his younger players. "We spend a lot of time teaching. We have a big emphasis on developing our players. We keep guys, as much as we can, in extra meeting time and practices, and we try to develop every guy on our roster. We've got 53 guys plus eight [on the practice squad]. We try to coach every guy who comes through here as much as we can, because you just never know who is going to develop into a really good player."
With so many young players playing important roles this year, The Baltimore Sun decided to take a look at the Ravens' first- and second-year players acquired in the draft or through free agency and evaluate their long-term potential.
Defensive tackle, 2nd round, 2010
So far: Cody was a dominant defensive tackle in college, truly an unblockable wrecking ball at times, but his fitness caused his draft stock to slip, and he wasn't much of a factor in his rookie season. But in this second year in the NFL, he's slowly blossomed into a solid starter with the potential to be even better.
In the future: If the Ravens coaching staff can continue to mold him and keep him in the weight room and on the treadmill, he and Haloti Ngata will anchor the defense for years to come.
Quotable: "I understand how much you have to take care of your body during the season, and how much time you have to spend watching film. You've got to make a commitment to everything and stay with it the whole season. You learn a ton just by watching the veterans. You start to see the things they see."
Tight end, 3rd round, 2010
So far: He didn't play much as a rookie, but Dickson has shown signs of becoming a real threat down the field. His hands have been somewhat inconsistent, and to become an elite player, he probably needs to learn to maintain his focus a bit more. But athletically he has all the right tools to be very good.
In the future: Just needs more reps. Watching him run past Troy Polamalu in Week 1 for a touchdown was a flash of his potential.
Quotable: "The NFL is so much more mental than college. When you're on the field, you don't want to be thinking about stuff. The first year, all you can think about is learning the playbook. And it's moving at such a fast pace, you think, 'I'm never going to learn this.' But from year one to year two, the game slows down tremendously."
Wide receiver, 4th round, 2011
So far: Doss showed good hands during the preseason when he made it into games, but he hasn't been able to climb the depth chart during the regular season. He's been active for just four games. Fans are frustrated he hasn't seen more time, but Doss doesn't seem to be. He knows he's still learning a lot.
In the future: A year in the weight room would help him get stronger and help him handle the physical pounding of the NFL. Still has potential to be a decent No. 3 receiver, based on his great hands alone, but that's probably his ceiling.
Quotable: "Obviously some stuff is out of my control. So I just approach it like I'm going to better myself every day going against a great defense [in practice]. They coaches have told me to just keep doing what I've been doing. They haven't told me anything specific I can do. We have a talented group of receivers and I'm still learning a lot from them."
Tight end, 4th round, 2010
So far: As a rookie, Pitta had almost no role on the team. When the Ravens needed someone to spell Todd Heap, they went to Dickson, especially if they were trying to throw the ball. But Pitta has been one of the pleasant surprises on the Ravens this year, especially of late. He and Joe Flacco seem to be developing a real chemistry, and he's shown he can go up and catch passes in traffic because he has such good hands.
In the future: He looks like he might be Flacco's security blanket for years to come, the role Todd Heap played early in Flacco's career.
Quotable: "It helped me so much to play with a guy like Todd Heap last year. Just being able to watch him and see how he carried himself and handled himself helped me a lot. Now that I'm able to be on the field and playing, I look back and think about how much I learned from him."
Linebacker, 2nd round, 2010
So far: The likely reality is, we may never know what kind of player Kindle could have been had he not fallen down two flights of stairs and fractured his skull prior to training camp his rookie year. True, he nearly blocked two punts during preseason, but that doesn't mean he's ready to contribute as an NFL player. Or that he ever will be. Kindle has made his share of mistakes, and there is still hope things will one day click for him, but right now he hasn't demonstrated in practice that he deserves to play more in games, and that's why he's frequently inactive on Sundays.
In the future: As much as people are rooting for him to succeed, it would be a surprise at this point if he lived up to the potential he showed in college.
Quotable: "The playbook in the NFL is complicated. I think that's what you realize. It's just so much more detail than what I had in college. But I feel good about a lot of it. Once you learn the playbook, and it's second nature, you can fine-tune it. I'm waiting my turn and my time and when that comes, I'll be ready."
Defensive tackle, 5th round, 2010
So far: After an injury plagued college career, Jones needed some time to get fully healthy and fully acclimated to the NFL. He has all the physical tools, and has occasionally shown flashes of the player he could be, but he needs to finish more plays.
In the future: Jones is strong, but sometimes he doesn't seem as explosive as you'd expect for a man his size and ability. He has a good attitude, though, and still has a lot of potential.
Defensive lineman, 5th round, 2011
So far: The hardest position to scout in football, other than quarterback, is defensive lineman. And that's what has made McPhee one of the Ravens' best draft-day steals in recent years. He already has 2.5 sacks as a rookie, and looks like he's going to be a physical and explosive player. He's made a real impact despite playing only on passing downs thus far.
In the future: Every few years, it seems like the Ravens unearth a gem of a player like McPhee, someone who fits in their scheme and blossoms. He has a ton of potential going forward. When you consider he's only 22 years old, we might look back one day and consider him one of the biggest steals of the 2011 draft.
Quotable: "One thing I've learned about the NFL is you have to be a grown man in every situation. You can't take a day off. You can't forget a play, because you're not going to get two or three chances to mess up."
Cornerback, 1st round, 2011
So far: Thanks to Smith's high-ankle sprain in Week 1, we've had to wait to see how well his game translates to the NFL. He looked like a strong, physical player in preseason, and there is every expectation he'll be that player once he gets into the line-up. But there isn't a need to rush him just yet, considering the way Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams are playing.
In the future: There is still every expectation that Smith will be a starter, and eventually a stud in the NFL. He's too physically talented not to be. And one thing worth pointing out: All the character concerns that caused him to slip in the NFL draft have been more or less forgotten. He's been a model citizen and teammate, despite not playing or practicing much of the year.
Wide receiver, 2nd round, 2011
So far: Smith's NFL career has spanned all of eight games, and already he's experienced remarkable highs and lows. He was labeled a bust after just two games, then had one of the most incredible rookie performances in NFL history against the Rams when he caught three touchdowns. He dropped a bunch of passes in a big game against the Steelers, then caught the game winner to give Baltimore its biggest regular-season victory in years.
In the future: Just needs to develop consistency. He may never have great hands, but he should be a more reliable threat. He has the speed and size (and talent) to be a very good player in the NFL, if not a great one. It's just a matter of getting the reps.
Quotable: "There are going to be a lot of ups and downs in the NFL, and your success comes down to how well you overcome things. I obviously understood that coming in, but until you go through it, you don't really get it. I've been at the lowest of lows here and the highest of highs, so I've already experienced so much, I'm going to be prepared for a long time."
Wide receiver, Undrafted in 2011
So far: Williams remains one of the most surprising stories this year on the Ravens. He not only made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland, he's now playing regularly as the team's No. 3 receiver and had a huge catch against the Steelers in the biggest win of the season. Williams may not have the track record of college success to project a long career, but he does have the physical tools to stick in the NFL. The Ravens didn't even expect this much from him this soon. If they told you they thought he'd make the team when he signed, they're joking. His ceiling isn't as high as Torrey Smith's, but he's already been a successful signing.
Quotable: "I feel like every day, I'm getting better and I'm improving my game. It's been a big adjustment learning how to take care of my body, dealing with things breaking down. But I think my confidence has really grown."
Quarterback, 6th round, 2011
So far: Taylor managed to win over a lot of fans with his performance in the preseason, but he's in the best place he can be right now, sitting behind a veteran quarterback and playing against a good defense every day in practice. It speaks to how much the Ravens think of him that they decided not to sign a veteran to back up Flacco, but everyone in the organization is hoping he doesn't see the field anytime soon in a close game.
In the future: Would benefit from a full offseason and training camp next year, since that's where he'll get valuable reps. Could probably manage a game in a pinch, but it's hard to say what his long-term potential is right now. Either way, if he ever becomes a starter, it probably won't happen in Baltimore.
Offensive tackle, 3rd round, 2011
So far: Reid was a bit of a project when the Ravens drafted him out of Central Florida, and it was clear during the preseason he wasn't ready to be an NFL starter just yet. But that doesn't mean he's been a disappointment. The Ravens have begun to integrate him into some blocking schemes where they needed a big tackle, and he's acquitted himself nicely.
In the future: Reid just needs to get stronger. He has great size and good feet, and has been eager to learn. He might not be a star, but he'll start somewhere eventually.
Quotable: "This organization really welcomes you with open arms. They're not afraid to show you the ropes and help you with anything. Everybody really wants you to be the best player you can be, and I was really happy about that. I was a little nervous coming in, but I've never felt so welcome."
Cornerback, 5th round, 2011
So far: Brown hasn't seen a lot of playing time so far, and he was recently passed on the depth chart by free agent Danny Gorrer. Without seeing him play, it's hard to evaluate his long-term potential. He had just two interceptions during his college career despite playing in the pass-happy Big 12.
In the future: He doesn't have the size that Smith and Williams do, and he's not as physical as Lardarius Webb, so it's hard to imagine him as a starter down the road. But you never write off a player after just eight games. Going against Joe Flacco every day in practice certainly can't hurt.
Quotable: "I'm not getting a lot of reps right now, so I've had to learn how to get mental reps. You have to focus on technique and making plays in your head while you study the playbook. You have to be a student of the game."