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Ravens' rookie class showing signs of progress

By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun

5:49 PM EST, November 5, 2013

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Midway through the NFL season, the Ravens' rookie class has shown incremental signs of progress.

With the exception of undrafted wide receiver Marlon Brown and free safety Matt Elam, a first-round pick, the other rookies have yet to make an impact.

Although the Ravens have yet to see significant contributions from most of their rookies, coach John Harbaugh said he is satisfied with their development.

"They've done well, I don't have a grade," Harbaugh said. "We're pleased with those guys. Most of those guys are playing and playing well. It's a heck of a group. We thought it was in the beginning, and that's proven out to be true."

Brown, who has started seven games, is leading the team with five touchdown catches, and Elam has emerged as a starter.

Elam has started every game since the Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos in the season opener that led to the benching of veteran Michael Huff.

Elam, who has 32 tackles, no interceptions and one pass deflection, said he expects his play to improve.

"I'm just staying patient and not forcing things," Elam said. "When you try too hard to make something happen, that's when you have problems. I know what I can do, and I'm just working hard to keep getting better."

Drafted 32nd overall out of Florida, Elam was a consensus All-American for the Gators, but he hasn't shown his hard-hitting collegiate style in the NFL.

"He's actually been struggling a little," said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel. "I'm a little surprised, but not that much because he's a rookie. I don't like his run pursuit angles, and the tackle he missed on [Green Bay Packers running back] Eddie Lacy was terrible. You can see how cautious he is as far as how he's going to hit people.

"He came in with the reputation of being a thumper. The Matt Elam I know plays 100 miles per hour. He doesn't look like he's playing 100 miles per hour. He looks like he's playing somewhat cautiously. I have yet to see him really cut it loose. On that Jermichael Finley play, he looked like a small guy trying to defend a big guy."

Riddick was referring to a pivotal 52-yard catch in the fourth quarter on which the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Elam appeared overmatched against the 6-5, 247-pound tight end. The play enabled the Packers to preserve a 19-17 victory.

The Ravens are staying patient with Elam, who recovered a fumble against the Pittsburgh Steelers for his first NFL turnover.

"He still has his rookie moments, but obviously we like him because he's starting," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "If we didn't, he wouldn't be starting. Matt's still learning all the time and getting better. The more he plays, the more he sees. I love the way he plays.

"He's a go-getter. Sometimes he's got to learn to play a little better under control. This isn't [the University of] Florida, where you can fly around and wallop somebody. These guys can make you miss."

It's been an even quieter start for second-round inside linebacker Arthur Brown, who has three tackles and a half-sack on defense, and two tackles on special teams. He's been limited to special teams and occasional defensive snaps in obvious passing situations.

Although he has recuperated from a strained left pectoral, his lack of bulk and strength make it difficult for the Ravens to increase his workload on defense with Jameel McClain and Josh Bynes ahead of him on the depth chart at weak-side linebacker.

"It's critical that Arthur keep his weight and strength and size up, but it's extremely tough to do that right now," Riddick said. "Arthur is a three-down player if he can keep his weight on. In college, he did a great job of using his hands to make up the weight differential. In pass coverage in sub situations, he's gotten lulled to sleep and fooled a few times."

The Ravens have gradually given more playing time to third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams. The 6-1, 335-pound former Division II All-American's first NFL sack was of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and he recovered a fumble against the Buffalo Bills three weeks earlier.

"I'm making pretty good progress," Williams said. "I'm getting the playbook down and having some production. I'm reading stances, learning techniques. The NFL has been what I thought it would be in terms of the physical aspect. That's a lot easier than the mental aspect. I'm doing pretty well, but I've got a long ways to go."

Williams has shown toughness and some ability to create leverage and shed blocks, but Riddick isn't sold on him.

"I wasn't that high on him coming out of college and haven't seen anything to change my opinion," Riddick said. "He's an early-down run plugger who can be caught with his head down and snatched and thrown to the ground. I don't see any huge upside, but maybe he'll prove me wrong."

While the Ravens' top three draft picks have defined roles, fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk and linebacker John Simon have been limited to special teams, with fifth-round offensive tackle Rick Wagner playing occasionally on offense in extra-lineman packages. He's the top backup at left tackle and right tackle.

Marlon Brown overcame the odds to make the final roster after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last November while playing for Georgia.

At 6-5, 205 pounds, Brown is a large downfield target. That has enabled him to be competitive right away.

"He looks just like he did in college — lots of inside-outside versatility, good hands, tough and deceptive speed after the catch," Riddick said. "He can eat up ground with long strides. I think he should win more contested jump balls and isn't going to separate much downfield, but they've gotten everything you could want out of him as an undrafted guy."

Brown has 26 receptions for 297 yards and is averaging 11.4 yards per catch. His longest was a 59-yarder against Green Bay, a play on which he displayed an ability to accelerate after catching the ball on a short route. Brown caught a career-high two touchdown passes and added a two-point conversion Sunday, contributing 14 points in the Ravens' loss to the Cleveland Browns.

"It's like a dream come true for my rookie season," Brown said. "I can definitely get better and become a more fine-tuned receiver and understand coverages better. I'm pleased right now, but I can definitely get way better."

awilson@baltsun.com

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Ravens’ Rookie Class

Nearly midway through the NFL season, here’s a look at how the Ravens’ rookies have fared:

Round / Player / Position / Size / College / Skinny

1st round / Matt Elam / Safety / 5-10, 210 / Florida / Impactful plays haven’t developed for defensive back since becoming starting free safety.

2nd round / Arthur Brown / Linebacker / 6-0 235 / Kansas State / Despite obvious talent, hasn’t forged a full-time defensive role as undersized defender adjusts to NFL level.

3rd round / Brandon Williams / Defensive tackle / 6-1, 335 / Missouri Southern / Massive small-school product starting to catch on, recording a sack and forced fumble.

4th round / John Simon / Outside linebacker / 6-1, 257 / Ohio State / Gritty special-teams contributor earns his keep strictly on kick coverage.

4th round / Kyle Juszczyk / Fullback / 6-1, 245 / Harvard / Projected hybrid role hasn’t developed for versatile former Ivy League star.

5th round / Rick Wagner / Offensive tackle / 6-6, 308 / Wisconsin / Now the top backup at left tackle and right tackle, Wagner has had his moments in spot duty in extra lineman schemes.

6th round / Kapron Lewis-Moore / Defensive end / 6-4, 310 / Notre Dame / Still recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligament in BCS national title game, on reserve non-football injury list and is essentially redshirting this year.

6th round / Ryan Jensen / Center / 6-4 320 / Colorado State-Pueblo / Has yet to see his first game action since recovering from foot surgery, but coaches like his potential as developmental prospect.

7th round / Aaron Mellette / Wide receiver / 6-2, 217 / Elon / Underwent knee surgery and placed on injured reserve after encouraging preseason performance.

7th round / Marc Anthony / Cornerback / 5-11, 196 / Cal / Cut by the Ravens, Anthony is now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad.

Undrafted / Marlon Brown / Wide receiver / 6-5, 205 / Georgia / Imposing size-speed target has outshined drafted receivers to catch 21 passes for 243 yards, leading Ravens with three touchdown catches.