The Ravens are being cautiously optimistic, and they should be, because the real evidence of a good draft doesn't show up for several years. But every once in a while, they'll let some of their true feelings leak out about last April's draft, which could be as good as any in team history.
That might not say much for some teams, but it speaks volumes about a team that drafted two probable Hall of Famers (Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis) with the first two picks in franchise history in 1996.
General manager Ozzie Newsome likes to point to the draft in 1999 when the Ravens had only four picks and came away with three very productive players in cornerback Chris McAlister, receiver Brandon Stokley and guard Edwin Mulitalo. He also likes the 2002 draft with safety Ed Reed, defensive tackle Tony Weaver, punter Dave Zastudil, returner Lamont Brightful, running back Chester Taylor and safety Chad Williams.
But this year's crop is just as talented, and certainly more competitive than ever. These eight rookies have been nasty and ornery, and refuse to be intimidated by a roster with 11 players who have been to the Pro Bowl, and a team that won 13 games last season.
"It's a lunch-pail group, extremely competitive. The sexiest pick was Troy Smith," said Newsome, referring to the Heisman Trophy winner taken in the fifth round.
Some of them have already made an impact, such as rookie linebacker Antwan Barnes, out of Florida International, who figures to be in on pass-rushing situations when the season starts. Guard Ben Grubbs, the No. 1 pick out of Auburn, University of Maryland offensive tackle Jared Gaither, Alabama fullback Le'Ron McClain and Michigan inside linebacker Prescott Burgess have great potential, and look like future starters.
Marshal Yanda, a guard-tackle from Iowa, could become the invaluable sixth lineman, swinging between both positions, pending injury or poor performances.
"You always make the final evaluations years down the road on a class, but this one does look like a good one with potential," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "You also like to have a draft where you have some players who can make an immediate impact, and we have several of them who will make contributions right away. Smith and [Kansas State receiver Yamon Figurs] are projects, but we're confident about them as well."
No rookies have made more immediate impressions than Barnes and Burgess. It was Burgess who stretched out running back Willis McGahee one day in training camp. Barnes plays and practices at only one speed, extremely fast. During pass protections drills, he has been buzzing by offensive linemen.
Burgess and Barnes were overlooked in the draft. Burgess ran a slow 40-yard dash, the unpardonable sin in college scouting, and Barnes (6 feet 1, 240) was considered too small.
"He [Burgess] ran a 4.9 at the combine, and times are a major phenomenon in our sport," DeCosta said. "There was this stigma about him like there was about Terrell Suggs, about them being slow. In fact, we also thought he got overshadowed at Michigan, because they had eight or nine other guys on the same side of the ball just as good. With Barnes, he was the last player I watched on film before the draft, and I didn't know how he got overlooked with such explosiveness.
"They were already intensity guys," DeCosta said. "They both felt they got overlooked in the draft, and it's good sometimes to draft guys like a Demetrius Williams, who have chips on their shoulders, because they play like it."
Gaither, a fifth-round selection in the supplemental draft, has bigger shoulders and a bigger chip. He left college two years early because of academic problems, and his attitude was also a concern for Terps coach Ralph Friedgen. But one day into training camp, Gaither and Suggs were going at each other full tilt in a pass-rushing drill, and later that day Yanda got in a few nice shots on Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott.
"We didn't know what to expect from Gaither physically, but he has been fairly steady," DeCosta said. "He knows he has to study film and improve his technique, but there is unlimited potential. Grubbs has been impressive, and he has some really solid years to come. Yanda is an overachiever like [former Raven] Tony Pashos. He's tough, feisty, and whenever we need to call on him, he'll be ready."
The Ravens have made tremendous progress with the offensive line during the past three years. In the future, they could have a starting group of tackles Adam Terry and Gaither, and Grubbs and Jason Brown at the guards, and Chester at center. It's an athletic group, one that could easily control the tempo of a game.
"We got Grubbs and McClain, and they were considered the best player at each of their positions," DeCosta said. "I believe McClain will become the starter early, and I believe he has already eclipsed where Ovie Mughelli was except for Ovie's last eight or nine games."
The only two projects of the class are Smith and Figurs. Both won't play much this season, even though Figurs could play a role on special teams as a returner and gunner. Both have had their outstanding moments in training camp but lack consistency. Both players, though, are athletic and, like the rest of the rookies, extremely competitive.
It's going to be a good group to watch develop. Newsome won't take credit for the draft, pointing to DeCosta, and DeCosta likes to point to the scouts and assistant coaches who travel around the country uncovering talent. But whatever formula the Ravens use, it works.
It's very early in these rookies' careers, but their futures look promising.