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Ravens continue to wait for young defensive draft picks to emerge

FootballBaltimore RavensNFL Pro BowlNFLMa'ake KemoeatuJimmy Smith (football)

The words imparted by Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks resonated with nose guard Terrence Cody, a conversation he hasn't forgotten.

Upon his arrival at team headquarters after being drafted in the second round three years ago, Cody was promptly informed by Brooks that he was expected to carry on the Ravens' tradition of dominant defensive players.

"Yeah, we try to have guys come in and make an impact," said Cody, a former consensus All-American at Alabama. "When I first came in, [Brooks] told me, 'We're looking to have big things come from you.' I'm on the verge of doing that."

Meeting that expectation has become quite the challenge, though.

Cody entered the season battling to regain his starting job, and among a batch of young defensive players the Ravens need to live up to their lofty draft status.

For a suddenly downtrodden defense rendered even more vulnerable with inspirational leader and middle linebacker Ray Lewis and shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb on injured reserve, that need has become even more urgent.

Whether it's because of a talent drain, slow development or a serious accident, the reigning AFC North champions' young defensive reinforcements haven't come close to achieving the success of their traditional stingy predecessors.

The Ravens have fallen to 28th in total defense, struggling mightily through seven games. And they haven't drafted a Pro Bowl defensive player since landing gifted defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft.

It's not as if general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't know how to acquire defensive talent, having drafted three NFL Defensive Players of the Year in Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and three other Pro Bowl selections in his 17 drafts.

Over the last five drafts, though, Webb, a third-round discovery out of tiny Nicholls State (La.), is the only high Ravens defensive draft pick to emerge as an impact player.

"It's not up to the typical Ozzie standards," said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout and current draft analyst, told The Baltimore Sun. "When you have a few down years, it jumps out. Ozzie has the knack. I think he's the best there is at identifying talent.

"The reality is once you get out of the first round, the success rate falls dramatically. It happens to everyone, but it's more glaring when it happens in Baltimore because of the success they've had. These things happen in cycles."

While the defense hasn't been replenished despite devoting seven draft picks in the first three rounds over the past five drafts, the Ravens have definitely bolstered their offense.

They've hit on quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Torrey Smith and starting offensive tackles Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele. All five players were first-or second-round draft picks.

"This is a guess, but I wonder if they said, 'We have no real stars on offense,' and we'll build around superstars Ngata, Suggs, Lewis and Reed, with mid to late-round picks and focus on offense," Lande said. "They've got great talent on offense, and now it's time to rebuild the defense. And they've got the scouting department to do that.

"Unless their young guys perform better or Terrell Suggs gets fully healthy, this defense isn't going to be what it was. It could be a year of hoping and praying and using duct tape on defense."

However, Newsome refuted the notion that the Ravens had concentrated on offense to the detriment of the defense.

"We've drafted defensive players," he said. "We still just draft the best players on the board."

Other than Webb before he got hurt against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14, the contributions of the Ravens' recent first-round to third-round draft picks on defense has been modest.

Newsome remains a big believer in his adage of patience that players will improve with time and tutelage from coach John Harbaugh.

"The thing about drafting players is they have to be developed," Newsome said. "I think John and his staff do a very good job of developing our players, getting them on the field and in the right situations and not getting them overwhelmed. It's one thing to draft the players, but the coaches are heavily involved in drafting them and also developing them."

 Former first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith became a starter this season only due to Webb's knee injury and has proven susceptible to double-move patterns. Big, strong and fast at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Smith has no interceptions this season and has been picked on at times.

"I have the first-round tag obviously, so that means I'm supposed to be the best right away, but everybody has their own path," Smith said. "I feel like I'm making good progress. I don't know what everybody else thinks. I know everybody tries to uphold the tradition of the Ravens' defense."

Dogged by character issues surrounding him at Colorado, Smith has remained out of trouble in Baltimore. Now, the question is what he'll do with this opportunity as a full-time starter.

"This injury to Webb could be the best thing that happens to Jimmy, to get thrown into it now and learn on the field," Lande said. "He'll either turn that corner and could be a star next year who takes Cary Williams' job if he's not re-signed or he'll not live up to his potential.

"Jimmy Smith is an All-Pro talent," Lande said. "He may lose some swagger this year while he develops and learns, but the Ravens could end up with two star corners with him and Webb next year."

Rookie second-round outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw has established himself as a solid run-stopper but hasn't thrived as a pass rusher. The former Alabama standout has split one sack, recording 29 tackles with one fumble recovery.

Upshaw has rebounded since a rough start where he reported overweight to training camp at over 280 pounds. Upshaw has since dieted and exercised his way down to a much leaner 266 pounds.

"Upshaw is a good replacement for Jarret Johnson because he is what Jarret was: tough, smart and an effort pass rusher," Lande said. "His size, strength, technique and hand placement are all excellent. He may never make a Pro Bowl, but he'll be a long-time starter you can count on every Sunday as a rock on defense that does his job and doesn't make mistakes."

Meanwhile, Cody was beaten out for the starting job in training camp by veteran Ma'ake Kemoeatu and has only a dozen tackles this season. He only started against the Houston Texans, a 43-13 embarrassment of a loss, because Kemoeatu hurt his knee.

Although Cody started every game last season, his weight and a lingering hip injury have derailed his season so far.

"I didn't like him at Alabama," Lande said. "I thought he was an underachiever, a lazy, overweight player with rare , innate talent. When he wanted to, he could be a great player, but he competed at such an inconsistent level. I gave him a free-agent grade. I couldn't see him as a starter in the NFL. I thought he would be a huge disappointment.

"I spoke with one 3-4 team that told me, 'We need a nose guard, but we wouldn't draft this guy, period.' At the same time, he's a really good kid, smart with no character issues, a little immature in terms of keeping him in shape. If the light ever goes on, he could be a superstar."

Former second-round outside linebacker Sergio Kindle is now on the practice squad after Suggs' return from a partially torn Achilles tendon.

The former University of Texas star fractured his skull prior to his rookie season when he fell down two flights of stairs, suffering permanent hearing damage in his left ear. Kindle has one career tackle.

"He had a first-round grade and was a great player at Texas," Lande said. "If he hadn't had the knee issues, he would have been a top 15-20 pick. He's what everybody wanted for a 3-4 outside guy, a speedy edge guy.

"This kid was a natural pass rusher who defeated blockers and had explosiveness. He was special. The fall he had is so unfortunate. We may never know what kind of player he could have been."

Former second-round outside linebacker Paul Kruger has never become a full-time starter, and the situational pass rusher has just 1.5 sacks this season.

After starring at Utah, the athletic 6-foot-4, 270-pounder has just eight sacks and 44 tackles in four NFL seasons.

"He's got a lot of tools," Lande said. "I'm actually surprised that he hasn't developed. A bunch of teams had high grades on him."

As for two former Ravens third-round 2008 draft picks, inside linebacker Tavares Gooden and strong safety Tom Zbikowski,  they never established themselves as long-term defensive solutions in Baltimore and are no longer on the roster.

Zbikowski starts for the Indianapolis Colts, and Gooden is a backup for the San Francisco 49ers.

"Gooden was a small, athletic kid, not real physical, not a bad value where they picked him," Lande said. "Undersized guys usually have injury issues like he did. Zbikowski is a solid player, what you want as your third safety and special-teams ace. When the Ravens were forced to start him, he's got some liabilities."

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees remains upbeat about young defenders like Smith, Upshaw and Cody.
Howver, he's still waiting for them to shed their inconsistent tendencies.

"Like all young players, I think you want to see consistency," Pees said. "You just want to see them doing the learning from mistakes and then not making that same mistake again. All of them are playing hard.
"Our guys are working hard. They’re studying hard. The guys that really become good at it are the guys that learn from those mistakes and become consistent.”

In a season where he's often been engulfed by blockers at the line of scrimmage and failed to create penetration, Cody remains convinced that he'll put it all together soon.

"I don't worry about where I got drafted," Cody said. "I think I've progressed a lot since I've been drafted, but I feel like I have a lot more room to grow and get better at."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

RAVENS' DEFENSIVE DRAFT PICKS

Starting with his first draft in 1996 prior to Ravens' inaugural season, general manager Ozzie Newsome has displayed a knack for unearthing defensive gems. Going back to the 2005 draft, though, the Ravens have drafted just one Pro Bowl defensive player: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Here's a look at the Ravens' recent defensive track record in the first three rounds:

Year;Player;Position;College;Drafted;Comment

2005;Dan Cody;OLB;Oklahoma;2nd Rd. (53rd overall); Overcame serious bout with depression in college, but proneness to injuries derailed college defensive end's attempt to convert to an NFL linebacker.

2006;Haloti Ngata;DT;Oregon;1st Rd. (12th overall); Three-time Pro Bowl lineman is one of the most disruptive interior forces in the game.

2006;David Pittman;CB;Northwestern State (La.); 3rd Rd. (87th overall); Lacked intensity, toughness, produced only 10 tackles in two seasons;now out of football.

2007;NA

2008; Tavares Gooden;ILB;Miami; 3rd Rd. (71st overall); Undersized with no sacks in three injury-plagued seasons that included concussions, sports hernias; now a backup, special-teams contributor with the San Francisco 49ers.

2008; Tom Zbikowski;S; Notre Dame;3rd Rd. (71st overall); Mustered 88 tackles, two interceptions in four solid seasons in Baltimore in 14 starts as backup to Ed Reed; now starts for the Indianapolis Colts.

2009; Paul Kruger;OLB;Utah;2nd Rd. (57th overall); Has started twice in four seasons, registering 43 tackles, eight sacks; athletic situational pass rusher has 1.5 sacks this season.

2009; Lardarius Webb; CB;Nicholls State (La.);3rd Rd. (88th overall); Shutdown corner signed to $50 million offseason deal, tore his left anterior cruciate ligament this season after intercepting total of eight passes last season, including the playoffs. Pro Bowl caliber cover skills.

2010; Sergio Kindle; OLB; Texas; 2nd Rd. (43rd overall); Fractured skull in accident before rookie year, suffered hearing damage in left ear and has one career tackle; now on Ravens' practice squad

2010; Terrence Cody; NT; Alabama; 2nd Rd. (57th overall); Drafted to succeed Kelly Gregg, but Cody hasn't been an impact player; currently  a backup who's used heavily in a rotation inside after being beaten out for job by Ma'ake Kemoeatu.

2011; Jimmy Smith;CB;Colorado;1st Rd. (27th overall); Prototypical cover guy with size, speed and strength, but game still needs refinement, especially against double-moves.

2012; Courtney Upshaw;OLB;Alabama;2nd Rd. (35th overall); Top draft pick is stout against the run with 29 tackles in five starts, unspectacular as a pass rusher with a half-sack.

-- Aaron Wilson

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FootballBaltimore RavensNFL Pro BowlNFLMa'ake KemoeatuJimmy Smith (football)
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