Football pundits like to say that players make their biggest jump in terms of performance from their first to their second seasons.
With a full season under their belt, second-year players understand what kind of shape they have to be in to deal with the grind of an NFL campaign. They have a full offseason to attack their weaknesses and a better understanding of the playbook. They can be more assertive and less focused on fitting in and not standing out for the wrong reasons.
I've written repeatedly that reading too much into how players look and perform at voluntary organized team activities this early in the summer isn't wise. However, for now, this is all we have to go off of and my biggest take-away from the Ravens' open OTA workout last week was just how much more comfortable and assertive the team's second-year players looked.
Timmy Jernigan, expected to replace Haloti Ngata as the starting defensive tackle, looked leaner, was getting penetration on nearly every play and let the offense know about it, too. Tight end Crockett Gillmore looked bigger and stronger, nothing like the player who appeared overmatched at times last summer. The same goes for running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, who appears primed to battle rookie Buck Allen for the primary back-up job behind Justin Forsett.
When guard John Urschel wasn't the primary center with the first-stringers, he was huddled up with some of the young offensive linemen going over assignments. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley participated in the workout on a limited basis after having offseason wrist surgery and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (quad injury) and defensive end Brent Urban (attending funeral services for his grandfather) didn't participate at all.
But even without them, the Ravens' 2014 rookie class, which contributed much to the team's 10-6 season last year, appears set to take a huge step forward in year two.
Obviously, Campanaro's continued issues with injuries are a concern. Like most teams, the Ravens have little tolerance for players who can't stay healthy. Every time team officials have brought up Campanaro's name over the past 12 months or so, they always include the dreaded "if he can stay healthy."
Campanaro hasn't been able to, but let's not bury him just yet. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said that Campanaro has a slight tear in his quadriceps and could be available for training camp. If true, Campanaro has plenty of time to secure a role on offense. What Campanaro probably can't afford is to miss a chunk of training camp with injuries.
When the Ravens signed Steve Smith last March, the prevailing belief was that the wide receiver would play two seasons with the team and then head into retirement. Smith has never publicly confirmed that's his plan. The 36-year-old did acknowledge last week he won't play into his 40s, and he alluded to other things on his "to-do list" beyond football.
If his 15th season is indeed his last, Smith seems ready to enjoy every last moment of it. He took in one of the workouts during the Ravens' rookie minicamp last month and spoke to the newcomers afterward. Unlike some of the team's other established veterans like Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty, Smith attended the first week of OTAs and he was one of the more active players.
Over the weekend, Smith joined the team's contingent for the Ravens Beach Bash in Ocean City. It isn't often a Raven of that stature takes part in the annual event.
By all accounts, Smith, who played the first 13 years of his career with the Carolina Panthers, has loved his time with the Ravens. The organization has been a good fit for his fiery personality and blue-collar mentality and it has allowed Smith to be himself.
Who knows if Smith has firmly decided his future beyond the upcoming season? But I think you can be sure that the wide receiver will be especially motivated to prove he's still an upper-echelon receiver in the league.
The NFL Players Association's Rookie Premiere, which was held last week in Los Angeles, exposes players to different business and marketing opportunities. It seems an extremely worthy event. However, I don't get the timing of it.
Three Ravens – Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams and Allen – missed last week's OTAs because they were at the Rookie Premiere. The new rookie salary structure has essentially eliminated holdouts and gotten rookies into team facilities earlier to begin the transition into the NFL. Yet, coaches and executives would still like to have their players in the building more.
Missing a full week of OTAs over the course of a long summer might not seem like a big deal, but every meeting, every repetition, every opportunity to practice with the veterans aids the transition for rookies. Why not have the Rookie Premiere between the mandatory minicamp and the start of training camp?
By no means do I think cornerback Cassius Vaughn, who the Ravens signed last week, is a lock to make the regular season roster. However, his addition certainly should get the attention of holdover Asa Jackson, among others.
Jackson, the former fifth-round NFL draft pick, has struggled to stay on the field because of injuries and suspensions. His return skills work in his favor, but Jackson probably can't afford an inconsistent, injury-marred training camp.
Speaking of cornerbacks, it would surprise me if the recently-acquired Kyle Arrington didn't quickly become one of the leaders of the Ravens' secondary. Just watching him at last week's OTA, Arrington is extremely active and competitive. He is engaged in not only what he was doing, but what other players were doing and what coaches were saying.
He got beat for a long touchdown catch by Aldrick Robinson, but he walked back to the defensive huddle and got right back to work.