A strong group of rookies from the 2014 draft has boosted the Ravens' fortunes as the team aims to return to the postseason, and provided a glimpse of what some believe can be a franchise-altering rookie class.
"This year probably has been one of our best years," coach John Harbaugh said. "This class has contributed as much or more than any class in recent history here with the Ravens."
From first-round pick C.J. Mosley at inside linebacker to mid-round picks Terrence Brooks (safety) and John Urschel (guard) to undrafted tackle James Hurst, the Ravens' 2014 rookie class has proven to be one of the franchise's most successful in recent history.
Nearly all of the 10 active rookies contributed to victories ahead of the bye, setting the groundwork for increased roles in the second half of the season and bright futures in the NFL.
"Most teams will tell you if they get one or two starters out of a draft, that's a good draft," said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout and draft analyst who currently works with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. "Generally, two is what you expect and three is a slam-dunk. They could potentially have three or four long-term guys out of this."
From the first week of training camp, Mosley emerged as a starting inside linebacker alongside Daryl Smith, and his athleticism and instincts have carried him to a team-high 90 total tackles, a pair of interceptions, and a forced fumble. He didn't expect the success, but it doesn't seem to surprise him either.
"I don't want to say I thought about that, but I knew the kind of player I was, and I knew that's why the Ravens drafted me — to make plays and run around on the field," Mosley said.
That Mosley recognizes that and has said he needs to improve his pass coverage is what separates him from many young players, Smith said.
"A lot of young ones don't know where they need to get better at and everything, but he definitely knows that," Smith said. "What he's been able to do so far, I think he's only scratching the surface. Just coming in and doing it, and doing it in the fashion he's doing it, it's amazing. I haven't been around too many young players that can do that."
Three offensive rookies — third-round tight end Crockett Gillmore, Urschel and Hurst — took roles above their preseason expectations because of injuries.
"If you had asked me early in the season, 'Was this guy going to be that much involved in what we were doing and that big of a factor?' I wouldn't have thought so," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said of Gillmore. "But things change, players get hurt, and I think he's answering the bell."
Gillmore, initially a third stringer who touted himself as a block-first tight end, stepped up after Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in Week 3, and then again when Owen Daniels missed Week 8 after a knee procedure. He has six catches for 53 yards and a score.
Hurst could have been as high as a second-round pick before an injury in his final game at North Carolina last December dropped him to a free agent. Hurst allowed three sacks in four games as starter while Eugene Monroe worked his way back from knee surgery, alternating weekly between strong and shaky performances before Monroe returned.
Urschel played well during Weeks 6 and 7 when right guard Kelechi Osemele missed time with his own knee injury. Starting so early in their careers is good for both the players and the Ravens, offensive line coach Juan Castillo said.
"I think now, everybody has the confidence that John and James are going to do a good job," Castillo said. "Heaven forbid, something happens with one of our guys, [but] if it does, I think the whole offense knows — and [quarterback] Joe [Flacco] knows — that we'll be alright with James and John."
Small doses of impact
That trio surpassed expectation because of opportunities. Other rookies, who might prove to be more impactful in the future, are at crowded positions on the Ravens' depth chart.
Second-round defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan missed four games with a knee injury, but collected his first career sack against the Tennessee Titans, and could be in line for more playing time on a competitive defensive line featuring star Haloti Ngata and run-stuffer Brandon Williams at his position.
"His potential is endless," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We're very happy to have the emergence of Timmy Jernigan."
Jernigan's teammate at Florida State, Brooks, is also competing for playing time at the crowded safety position. He leveled Titans tight end Delanie Walker last Sunday to force an incompletion and swing the game in the Ravens' favor.
Brooks, inactive for two games this year, has learned "a couple hard lessons" in coverage, Harbaugh said, but that play showed Brooks is growing comfortable in the scheme. Last Sunday, a week after being inactive against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brooks substituted in for safety Darian Stewart in obvious passing situations.
Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, a third-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, has seen his role fluctuate behind starting running back Justin Forsett. Taliaferro didn't get a carry until Week 3, and has scored four touchdowns since, but hasn't had more than 10 touches since Week 4. On the season, the rookie has 61 carries for 257 yards.
Wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill), whom the Ravens traded a future pick to be able to draft him in the seventh round, is one of six wide receivers and caught a touchdown in his season debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6. He has six catches for 85 yards in three games, and grew to be a reliable target over the middle of the field before a hamstring injury against the Bengals in Week 8.
For the future
Undrafted rookies Zachary Orr and cornerback Tramain Jacobs are both on the active roster as undrafted free agents, while two 2014 draft picks, fourth-round defensive end Brent Urban and sixth-round quarterback Keith Wenning, have their sights set on 2015. Urban is on injured reserve with a torn right ACL suffered in training camp, while Wenning, who is on the practice squad, could be Flacco's backup with Tyrod Taylor's contract expiring.
However and whenever they break in, a draft like this can cover a franchise for years to come, draft expert Lande said.
"I think they did a really good job getting players that have shown this year that they're ready to contribute, and the ravens did a good job of identifying talent," Lande said. "A number of these guys could be starting for them next year."