As the Ravens built their draft class in April, they did so with the knowledge that several rookies probably would need to contribute immediately.
When the team opens training camp at team headquarters this week — and when it begins the defense of its Super Bowl championship against the Denver Broncos in the regular-season opener Sept. 5 — it likely will follow that plug-and-play mentality.
The Ravens never have started four rookies to begin the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, but that could change this year.
Safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are top candidates to start because of their talent, opportunity and the way they fit the Ravens' schemes.
“That's indicative of the intelligence and philosophy and confidence the Ravens have in their scouting staff,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. “They're always setting the bar because they find guys who are right for what they want to do. They know these kind of things, and that's why they're always out in front.”
Getting younger at safety
The Ravens expect Elam, whom they selected with the final pick of the first round, to compete with veteran James Ihedigbo at strong safety and replace Bernard Pollard, whom the team cut in March.
At 5 feet 10, 210 pounds, Elam is a bit undersized for the position, but the former University of Florida consensus All-American has an aggressive, hard-hitting style and draws high marks for his range.
"I don't think he'll have much problem getting acclimated because he's a smart kid, a real hard worker who's a naturally instinctive football player that should be able to step in and start," said Russ Lande, a former Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams scout who's the scouting director for the Montreal Alouettes. "He will be an excellent run defender and tackler because he's so willing to hit and knock guys' heads off. Coverage is the weaker side of his game because he's a little stiff and he's not a huge guy. I don't see him getting exposed often and he should be a solid, productive guy like Bernard Pollard right away."
Elam recorded 176 career tackles, 24 for losses, six interceptions and two forced fumbles in three seasons for the Gators.
During offseason practices, Elam lined up at several positions and appeared comfortable with no hesitation.
“Matt Elam fits the Ravens' mentality,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and Browns general manager. “He's got the same kind of temperament that they really look for in their defensive players.”
The Ravens would like Elam to be interchangeable with free safety Michael Huff.
"The interesting thing about Matt is he's one of those guys who's so versatile, playing strong safety, free safety and nickel," Riddick said. "Combining him with Michael Huff will make Baltimore a very dangerous defense that can dictate to offenses what they do. Baltimore won't have to substitute because of Elam's coverage ability and how he can perform in base defenses.
"I went to his workout at Florida, and I thought he had as good a workout as I've seen for a defensive back: very quick, very athletic, caught the ball really well. The only knock on him is his height, so the questions is how he'll do when he goes up against big tight ends like Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. He's a great pick for where they got him."
With Ray Lewis retiring and Dannell Ellerbe signing with the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens are in flux at inside linebacker this season. They're banking on Brown's injecting athleticism — and, eventually, leadership — into the defense.
Speed at linebacker
Brown doesn't have ideal size at 6-0, 241pounds for an inside linebacker, but the second-round draft pick's speed rivals that of running backs such as his brother, Philadelphia Eagles backup Bryce Brown.
The former Kansas State All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is considered a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker, and has drawn high marks for his maturity and readiness to play immediately.
“Kansas State guys come to the NFL prepared and mature like Arthur, knowing how to study and how to practice, and catch on quickly,” former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. “Arthur is a physical, compact, downhill guy who can run. They can plug him into their 3-4 scheme and turn him loose, where he can maximize his athletic skill early on.”
A two-time captain for the Wildcats, Brown had 201 tackles over the past two seasons. He has run the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range.
"He's got great instincts, flies to the ball and has a great motor with good timed speed and playing speed," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said. "He's a run-and-hit guy. I thought a 4-3 scheme like the Bears would have been perfect for him, kind of like a Lance Briggs. I don't see him being that good at the point of attack, but he's aggressive and gets to the ball real well."
In June, Brown told The Baltimore Sun that he expects to be ready for training camp after undergoing sports hernia surgery in May.
Will Brown be able to fight through blocks effectively and be durable enough?
"He's an undersized guy, but he's not terrible undersized," Lande said. "He has to prove he can take on blocks. He also needs to be more consistent. At times, he was so quick to read and fast to get to the ball that he goes by the play. I don't see a lot of faults and look for him to be a very productive starter early in his career. I'd be shocked if he doesn't start as a rookie and is among their top two or three tacklers."
Replacement for Cody?
At 6-1 and 335 pounds, Williams is an imposing Division II All-American whom the Ravens drafted in the third round.
He's making a huge leap in competition from Missouri Southern but was the talk of offseason practices because of his rare mobility and low center of gravity. Williams is active, aggressive and enthusiastic, a tough combination for centers to deal with.
With Terrence Cody still not fully healthy after offseason hip surgery and coming off a disappointing season, Williams could provide an anchoring presence in the middle of the defense.
"I'll bet you he takes Cody's gig and pushes him aside," Lande said. "This is a powerful kid who's highly competitive. He's a fire hydrant type of kid, strong, technically sound, works his butt off. He's exactly what you want at nose guard. Even healthy, I don't see how Cody could beat him out because Cody is a bad athlete. This kid can stay on his feet and move.
"He had some up-and-down days at Senior Bowl. If you're just asking him to be an immovable, clog-the-middle guy, that's what he can do. He doesn't have long arms, but he should allow the inside guys to make a lot of tackles."
Riddick is also high on Williams, but not entirely sold on his ability to transition right away to the NFL.
"He has natural explosiveness in his hips, quads and calves and can reset the line of scrimmage with his hand placement, but the only issue is sometimes he had a narrow base and could get turned and not play square," Riddick said. "I think he'll have to get used to the competition at the NFL level. That showed up a bit at the Senior Bowl in practice where he struggled a few times against Brian Winters and Justin Pugh. It's a tough position, it's an absolute dogfight. They may be counting on him early, but I'm not as sure of how he'll do right away."
Versatility at fullback
The Ravens cut Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach after they could not reach a compromise on his salary, making Juszczyk their new starter.
The 6-1, 248-pound fourth-round pick from Harvard is stout, but more of a versatile pass-catching fullback than Leach, a bulldozing blocker.
"He catches the ball extremely well, I thought he did some good things blocking wise in terms of getting to his assignments," said Savage, who watched Juszczyk at the Senior Bowl. "He's not going to be a Vonta Leach, a road-grader. He's going to be more in the Chuck Evans' mold.
"He's more of a run-block-catch fullback rather than a blocker only. He's more of a West Coast fullback. In their offense, I could see him really making productive plays for them in terms of being a chain mover."
Twice an All-Ivy League first-team pick , Juszczyk knows what he needs to prove.
“I know there's been a lot of questions about whether or not I can have the same physicality as Vonta,” said Juszczyk, who caught 52 passes for 706 yards last season and finished with 22 career touchdowns. “Once the pads go on, that's an opportunity for me to show that I can knock some heads out there.”
The Ravens have an established culture of winning, having qualified for the playoffs the past five seasons.
Although there's been a lot of change on the roster, there are still plenty of veteran on the roster to show the rookies what to do.
"More than anything, you need the rookies to have a sense of urgency about being consistent," Sundquist said. "On the really good teams like Baltimore, Denver, Pittsburgh and New England, the veterans help management and the coaching staff and tell the rookies, 'This is how we operate here.'"
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
Ravens key dates
Thursday: First full-team training camp practice
Aug. 4: Open practice, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 5 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Aug. 8: First preseason game, at Buccaneers, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 11: Open practice, M&T Bank Stadium, 5 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Aug. 13: Last training camp practice
Aug. 15: Second preseason game, vs. Falcons, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 18: Open practice, Mustang Stadium, Stevenson University, 5 p.m. (Fans must enter a lottery on the Ravens' website for tickets; seating is limited)
Aug. 22: Third preseason game, vs. Panthers, 8 p.m.
Aug. 29: Last preseason game, at Rams, 8 p.m.
Sept. 5: Season opener, at Broncos, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 15: Home opener, vs. Browns, 1p.m.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun