The season was a whirlwind for the Ravens' 2011 class of rookies.
It swept them up when the NFL lockout ended last July and dropped them at The Castle in Owings Mills a day later for their first training camp. It carried them through a 12-4 season all the way to the AFC championship game and spit them out after that heartbreaking loss.
Only then could their heads stop spinning.
"The rookies that we have right now can't believe that last year's rookies went right into training camp without these sessions," assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said after Wednesday's organized team activity. "They can't imagine not having the ability to be coached and watch the film and to develop before being thrust right into a preseason game."
But each of the team's eight 2011 draft picks made the 53-man roster out of training camp, as did rookie free agent LaQuan Williams. And throughout their turbulent rookie seasons, a few made significant contributions — Torrey Smith's seven touchdown catches, Pernell McPhee's six sacks, Jimmy Smith's two interceptions — as the Ravens soared to their first AFC North title since 2006.
Now, just like the current crop of rookies, these second-year players are getting their first taste of offseason workouts this spring. They have hoisted barbells in the strength and conditioning program and are getting their technique tweaked by John Harbaugh's coaching staff during these voluntary practices.
In those regards, they have shown visible growth since the last time we saw them — trudging off the field at Gillette Stadium after that loss in January — but they say the majority of the maturation they are experiencing is from a learning standpoint now that things have finally started to slow down for them.
"I now know what I'm doing, no matter where I'm lined up. I'm able to anticipate things because I understand everything a lot more. I'm able to work on my technique a lot more because we have one-on-one time with our coach," said Torrey Smith, whose every move was scrutinized last summer. "In camp, we were just going. … You're trying to learn the plays and be able to play fast. Then you really can't focus on your technique much because you're trying to learn what you're doing first. To have an opportunity now to go through an offseason, I'm excited about it."
The speedy receiver started his Wednesday a first down away from the JUGS machine, inching toward it as he snatched footballs out of the warm air a nanosecond before they rocketed into his facemask. Later, after attempting a diving catch at the goal line only to watch the ball clank off his hands and into those of Lardarius Webb, he got loud feedback from wide receivers coach Jim Hostler. And Smith wrapped up a productive practice by soaring over Corey Graham to make a sweet touchdown grab.
"I have the natural ability," Smith, who hauled in 50 receptions for 841 receiving yards a season ago, said last week. "For me, it's just putting all of the technique together so I can be dominant."
Meanwhile, fellow wideout Tandon Doss, who was drafted two rounds after Smith, looks to be starting to find his way. Unlike Smith, he had minimal impact as a rookie. Doss was active in just six games and is still looking to make his first NFL catch. And after seeing Smith run by defenders with regularity, it made it easy for some to forget that there is a learning curve for rookies — especially when they are first handed a helmet and a playbook just six weeks before the start of the regular season.
"We got rushed into camp. I knew nothing," Doss said. "Now as I go through these OTAs, I feel like I've been here forever. Just being able to slow things down and understanding everything."
The biggest difference now, he says, is that he and his fellow second-year players are beginning to grasp not only what the coaches are asking them to do, but why they are asking them to do it.
Doss, Smith and Williams are learning how to keep cornerbacks off balance with sharper routes. Dual-threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor has mostly stayed tethered to the pocket when tossing passes to his targets this spring. And cornerback Chykie Brown, whose playful chirping in the secondary was reminiscent of Frank Walker, appears to be more comfortable and confident in the Baltimore defense.
"It's really hard sometimes to evaluate rookies when they don't really know what they're doing," new defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "So sometimes you look out there and you think, 'Boy, that guy looks terrible.' Well, he looks terrible because he's thinking about what he's doing, and so he's not doing it. And so you really can't tell athletically what they can do."
Third-year players such as nose tackle Terrence Cody and tight end Ed Dickson are also benefiting from the return of OTAs. Before their rookie year back in 2010, they were able to take part in a full offseason of workouts. But after their rookie year, there was the lengthy NFL lockout, robbing them of valuable learning experiences with which to build on what they had accomplished in their first season.
"It's real important," Pees said of the OTAs. "Last year was really a tough year not having an offseason at all. Any time that they can be here is always a benefit for them and it's a benefit for us, too."
But on Wednesday, there were some notable second-year players who opted not to reap the benefits of these voluntary workouts. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive end Pernell McPhee and offensive tackle Jah Reid were no-shows even though they are competing for starting spots. They were in attendance last week, though, and those battles will be won during training camp, not in mid May.
Still, there is reason to believe that after taking part in some or all of these offseason workouts, the members of the 2011 rookie class will think their second NFL season was a breeze compared to what they flew through during their rookie year — which some, flashing back, believe was a blessing.
"We just had the play the cards we were dealt," Torrey Smith said. "A lot of us responded in the right way and it forced you to learn faster, rather than now. We're taking things slow and we're able to understand it. I wouldn't want to change it, looking back it at now. They forced us to grow up fast. We had to learn things on the fly, make mistakes on the fly. You grow up quick."
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