The Ravens rookies running back J.K. Dobbins and linebacker Patrick Queen were not nervous about playing in their first NFL game.
Throughout training camp, the Ravens' front office and coaching staff quietly expressed confidence in their 2020 draft class. On Sunday, it was easy to see why.
Let’s preface this by saying that the Ravens were playing the worthless, no good Cleveland Browns in the season opener. But if the play by this group of rookies in a 38-6 season-opening win was any indication, the Ravens have a bright future. After winning a franchise-record 14 regular-season games last season, they might be even better this year.
It’s a gamble to put a rookie out on the field in any situation, but even more unpredictable when a team hasn’t played a preseason game. But in Sunday’s victory, the Ravens had six rookies play important roles, including two on defense, two on offense and two on special teams.
In the case of rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison and return specialists Devin Duvernay and James Proche II, they filled in major gaps heading into the game and might fill them for the entire season.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the rookies,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We started the game [with] all of them, really, [right guard] Tyre Phillips, Queen, Harrison, those guys played good, NFL football. There’s other guys, too, that played on special teams; Proche and Devin and others, I don’t want to forget anybody. The fact that now they’ve got a game under their belt, now they can go, ‘OK, I can do this.’"
Throughout training camp, there were whispers about how mature this rookie class is both on and off the field. The first game would test that, especially against an AFC North rival and with the pressure of following last season’s disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
Queen, the first-round pick out of LSU, led the Ravens with eight tackles, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble. Harrison, a third-round pick from Ohio State who can play inside or outside, had four tackles and broke up one pass attempt.
Perhaps the most important part of their games, besides the fantastic speed, is their poise. The Ravens got caught out of position a couple of times in the first half when they surrendered 110 of the Browns' 138 rushing yards, but made the proper adjustments in the second.
“It was stuff that we hadn’t spaced on — just not getting lined up, getting the call but not thinking about what we had to do and execute,” Queen said. “It was all on us; it was all stuff that we can fix and get better at and eliminate.”
Finding return specialists was also a major priority during the offseason. The Ravens tried several combinations during training camp, but few outside of the organization knew what Harbaugh was going to do. Would it be veterans Marquise Brown or Willie Snead IV returning kicks, or would Harbaugh go bold with Proche as the punt returner and Duvernay returning kickoffs?
Proche, the sixth-round selection from SMU, misjudged and failed to run under one punt that was downed inside the 5-yard-line, but returned two others for 26 yards, including a 17-yard run. Duvernay averaged 32 yards on two kickoff returns and he showed good explosion through the holes.
The Ravens didn’t return one punt or kickoff for a touchdown last season. That might be different in 2020.
“The moment wasn’t too big for them. Devin Duvernay is a good example,” Harbaugh said. “He took the kickoff returns. He caught a couple passes, one or two, took them north. He’s very poised, had good vision. I thought the guys covered kicks. You look at special teams, so many times you see that. Even James Proche, the one ball tailed on him, and he let it roll, which would not be what you’d want — I think he’s very capable of catching that — but then he didn’t compound his mistake by going to try to pick it up or something, with guys bearing down on him.
“I thought that was a pressure thing to do. Then he came back later when he, probably, would’ve wanted a fair catch, but I think he’s so confident that he went ahead and caught it, got some yards and, I think, wanted to build for the future.”
Duvernay, possibly the fastest player on the team, had one catch for 12 yards. But more prominent roles on offense were played by two other rookies, right guard Tyre Phillips and running back J.K. Dobbins.
Phillips, a third-rounder from Mississippi State, spent most of training camp backing up veteran D.J. Fluker. His starting assignment might be more of an indictment of Fluker than a tribute to Phillips, but the rookie was solid Sunday. Phillips, along with center Matt Skura, struggled at times, but he will get better after a year in the weight room.
Dobbins, a second-round pick from Ohio State, had 22 rushing yards on seven carries and two short touchdown runs. He has shown good acceleration getting to the edge and was a pleasant surprise as a receiver in the preseason.
“I never really get nervous,” Dobbins said. “When I played my first game in college, I didn’t get nervous. Today, I wasn’t nervous. I think it just comes with practicing super hard [and] building my confidence in practice. It’s definitely a blessing just to be in the league and playing with this great team. Right now, [we’re] 1-0 — it’s time to lock in on the next opponent. I’m definitely happy about my touchdowns and everything my teammates did. But now, we’ve got to move on to the next game.”