At the end of their Super Bowl XLVII-winning season, the Ravens were feeling pretty good about their 2012 draft class.
Their first pick, strong-side linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who was taken early in the second round, played in all 16 games and started nine, made 55 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks and forced a fumble in the Super Bowl that led to a second-quarter touchdown drive for the Ravens.
Second-rounder Kelechi Osemele started all 16 regular-season games at right tackle and then moved to left guard, where he was dominant at times during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. Third-round selection Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice’s primary backup at running back, also picked up his game in the playoffs, averaging 5.2 yards per carry after a regular season in which he gained 532 yards and scored a touchdown.
Seventh-round pick DeAngelo Tyson had already entered the defensive line rotation while Gino Gradkowski (fourth round) and cornerback Asa Jackson (fifth round) were projected for much bigger roles in 2013. And that’s not even to mention standout kicker Justin Tucker, who was an undrafted free agent but part of the 2012 rookie class, nonetheless.
With another offseason in the weight room and more familiarity with how and why the Ravens do things and what it takes to succeed at the NFL level, the already-impressive 2012 draft class was expected to make major improvements. Year Two is traditionally when some players make big jumps forward.
Such jumps, however, never really came for the 2012 draft class. Upshaw showed up at training camp badly out of shape and had a quiet season with 29 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Osemele missed more than half of the 2013 season with a serious back injury that ultimately required surgery. Pierce finished with nearly 100 fewer rushing yards than he had during his rookie season, despite carrying the ball 44 more times, and then he underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason.
Gradkowski started all 16 games but struggled to replace Matt Birk and is now back to being a reserve while Jackson was suspended by the NFL for the second time in as many years and made virtually no impact.
The Ravens’ 2013 draft class didn’t make nearly as immediate of an impact as the 2012 one did. But the success of the Ravens’ 2014 season will depend partly on last year’s rookies making a much bigger jump than their predecessors did in their sophomore season.
The Ravens got 17 total starts from the 10 members of last year’s draft class, all but two of them from safety and first-round pick Matt Elam. The other two were from fifth-round offensive lineman Rick Wagner, who got credit for the start because the Ravens began the game in their “Jumbo” package. But obviously Wagner wasn’t at any point considered a starter.
Nor was second-round pick Arthur Brown or fourth-rounder Kyle Juszczyk, who were on the field at times but not as much as originally expected. Third- and fourth-round picks Brandon Williams and John Simon were inactive for nine of the Ravens’ 16 games. Neither sixth-round picks – Kapron Lewis-Moore or Ryan Jensen – played in a game. Like perhaps with Tucker a year earlier, the most productive member of the 2013 rookie class was undrafted free-agent wide receiver Marlon Brown, who caught a team-leading seven touchdown passes.
If the Ravens are going to get back to the playoffs after a one-year absence, they need much more from that group. The opportunities certainly will be there.
With the addition of Darian Stewart and rookie Terrence Brooks, Elam, whose rookie season was uneven at best, is expected to move to strong safety, where he is more comfortable and should be around the ball more. Brown will compete with this year’s first-round pick, C.J. Mosley, for the starting weak-side linebacker job, but he figures to play a significant role on defense even if he winds up being a reserve.
Williams is currently the favorite to start at defensive tackle following Arthur Jones’ offseason departure. With Vonta Leach gone, Juszczyk should be the Ravens’ top fullback and also could become a weapon in the passing game with Gary Kubiak calling the plays.
Wagner is in line to start at right tackle, while Jensen may fall into that extra lineman-top tackle reserve role that Wagner occupied last season. Lewis-Moore is healthy again and should challenge to be in the defensive line rotation.
Obviously, it would be naive to think that all of them will show major improvement in Year Two. But the Ravens need several of them to take major steps forward. The struggles of the 2012 draft class in its sophomore year figured prominently in the Ravens failing to make the playoffs.
The Ravens can’t have history repeat itself.