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Preston: Despite injuries, Ravens have young core that lends hope for future

The Ravens have taken a lot of criticism about previous drafts, but if the 2017 class pans out the team appears to have built a strong foundation for the future.

It takes three or four years to evaluate the success of each draft, but the Ravens seem to have put together back-to-back good classes starting in 2016. Combined with several decent rookies in 2015, the Ravens have loaded up on defense and have good overall depth.

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In two preseason games, the Ravens have routed the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. But the most telling part has been in the second half when both teams have their young players on the field. The Ravens have scored 28 points and allowed only three.

Defensive players are starting to get excited again.

"The guys that [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and coach [John] Harbaugh added are coming into their own," Ravens tackle Brandon Williams said of his young defensive linemates. "They are getting the playbook even better. They are starting to know the plays, but at the same time read the coverages and read the line.

"We are making big strides, but we still have a long way to go. We have a high bar for our room and for our defensive line, and our defense. Every day we are out here grinding, and making ourselves better and better every time. When the season starts, it will be a cakewalk."

The Ravens still need more playmakers, especially on offense, but football is a sport that requires more blue-collar players than superstars. And who knows? The next superstar could be a heralded rookie like linebacker Tyus Bowser, or cornerback Marlon Humphrey or an undrafted rookie free agent like receiver Tim White.

The abundance of depth might not show up this season because the Ravens have been hit hard with injuries, but there is a good core group to develop. It all starts with defense, and the Ravens have gone back to their old philosophy of building with that unit first.

Maybe no unit has more depth than the line with Williams being flanked by second-year player Michael Pierce, an undrafted rookie free agent last season, and fourth-year end Brent Urban.

Newsome has said he can never have enough defensive linemen and he could have a seven- or eight-man rotation using third-year tackle Carl Davis, or second-year ends Willie Henry or Bronson Kaufusi, or rookie lineman Patrick Ricard.

All could play or be used as possible trade bait if needed. The Ravens linebackers aren't as deep, but might be just as talented.

"I love our depth, I love our energy," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It's like we've gone back in time to build the team the way we used to."

The Ravens have Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley in the middle with Suggs on the weak side and Matthew Judon on the strong side along with Za'Darius Smith, who can also play on the defensive line. Judon is only in his second year and Smith in his third.

"Those young guys off the edge can bring it," Suggs said.

The Ravens brought in veterans such as safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr to help improve the secondary, but it's young players like Humphrey, the team's top draft pick this year, and second-year cornerbacks Tavon Young and Maurice Canady that get folks over at the complex really excited.

Because of serious knee injuries, Young won't play this season and Canady is out indefinitely, but they had already shown significant progress from a year ago. Throw in impressive undrafted rookie cornerback Jaylen Hill, and the Ravens seem set for the next couple of seasons at a position where they had been weak in previous years.

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The Ravens have been traditionally good at finding undrafted rookies who become starters. Besides Pierce last year, they have added Hill and Ricard this season along with receivers White, Quincy Adeboyejo and running back Taquan Mizzell.

"I feel for him; I bleed for him," Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg said of White's thumb injury that forced him out for the season. "He's still here. His time will come, and adversity for one man brings opportunity for others."

The Ravens have had some successes on offense as well. With their top pick in 2016, they selected left tackle Ronnie Stanley and then left guard Alex Lewis in the fourth round. Both were starters until early in training camp, when Lewis was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

The Ravens also might have their running of the future in Kenneth Dixon, another fourth-round pick in 2016, but he is also out for the season with a knee injury.

So far, this season has been an aberration. Few teams have had as many injuries as the Ravens to open the year. But if you look ahead, the Ravens appear to have put together a solid foundation. They can add impact players eventually, but they needed a nucleus of core players as well.

They appear to have found a good group.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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