Preseason games will be golden opportunity for Ravens rookies
By By Jeff Zrebiec and The Baltimore Sun
Aug 08, 2012 | 6:29 PM
For the better part of two weeks under the hot Maryland sun, Kelechi Osemelehas physically dominated outside pass rushers, running back Bobby Rainey and wide receivers Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson have displayed big-play potential and Justin Tucker has been near flawless in forging an unexpected kicking competition.
Those five are part of the Ravens' 25-man rookie class that head coach John Harbaugh has already called the "deepest" group of first-year players that the organization has had in his five-season tenure. With the starters not expected to play much more than a quarter in the Ravens' preseason opener Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the focus will quickly shift to the team's newcomers who hope to prove they can help an organization that prides itself on developing young players.
"Coaches see you in a practice atmosphere but it's different when it's game time," said Streeter, a sixth-round pick out of Miami. "Are you going to be labeled as a practice player or are you a game-time player? It's a different element and coaches want to know if you're going to respond. It's very important coaches know what guys are made of when the lights turn on. I feel like everybody here is excited for this challenge."
While two of their top three picks in April's draft — linebacker Courtney Upshaw and running back Bernard Pierce — are not expected to play after missing much of training camp with injuries, the Ravens will thrust several other rookies into prominent roles versus the Falcons.
Center Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick out of Delaware, has been working with the first-team offense with veteran Matt Birk sidelined with a back injury.
"I'm more excited than nervous. It's such a cool feeling that this is going to be my first NFL game," Gradkowski said. "I try and picture it every night, doing the right things and my assignments, and thinking about what I have to do against different looks. I think about it all the time."
Osemele, the mammoth offensive lineman out of Iowa State who the Ravens selected in the second round, also could start at right tackle with Michael Oher lining up on the left side.
"Every play is evaluated so the coaches will be looking at it and critiquing it hard, especially the rookies," Osemele said. "They're going to see who they need to keep on the team before they make cuts. It's a pretty big deal for us. We have to show them what we're capable of doing and what we offer to the team."
Harbaugh has been effusive in his praise for his rookie class, which includes seven draft picks and 18 undrafted free agents. He predicted not long after camp opened that "there's going to be some guys making the team that people hadn't heard of going in." He hasn't backed off that statement in the tedious training camp days that have followed.
"I've already said it, I am impressed," Harbaugh said. "There are a lot of good football players there and I think our coaches have done a spectacular job of getting them ready. They're not going to be surprised by anything. Nobody is going to miss their chance because they haven't been trained or gotten reps. I'm excited to see them play. The games are the next step, the next test."
In four seasons under Harbaugh, a total of 32 rookies have made the Ravens' active roster heading into Week 1 of the regular season. That includes 11 rookies in his first year in 2008 and 10 last season, when the rookie class was forced to learn on the fly because of the extended lockout. It's far too early to project the number of newcomers that could break training camp this year, but there are plenty of candidates beyond the draftees.
Rainey, the diminutive back who was second in the nation with 1,695 rushing yards for Western Kentucky last year, has slashed and darted into the backup running back mix. Thompson and fellow undrafted rookie wide receiver Devin Goda (Slippery Rock) have made their share of plays. Guard/tackle Jack Cornell (Illinois) and nose tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen (Kent State) have shown enough to get some repetitions with the first team, and linebacker Nigel Carr (Alabama State) has hit everything in sight, according to Harbaugh.
Then, there's Tucker who has out-kicked the incumbent Billy Cundiff by drilling 57-of-60 field goals. The kicking competition, however, and the other position battles, won't be decided on the lush practice fields at the Under Armour Performance Center.
"The games are the only thing that matter," Osemele said. "That's the only way you can get experience, by having all those fans out there, and having all the lights on you and trying to block all that out with the crowd noise. Especially for a young player and your first time out there, that's probably a good sign on how you're going to play during the season."
Nigel Carr, LB: The Ravens have made a habit of unearthing undrafted free agent middle linebackers like Bart Scott and Jameel McClain. Carr, who finished his collegiate career at Alabama State after legal issues ended his time at Florida State, is quick and loves to hit, and there are jobs to be won at his position.
Asa Jackson, CB: Drafted in the fifth round out of Cal Poly, Jackson has had an up-and-down training camp, and may have already fumbled away an opportunity to return kicks and punts. The Ravens are extremely deep at cornerback so Jackson needs to show that he can be counted on in coverage.
Kelechi Osemele, RT: The scouting report out of April's draft was that the former Iowa State guard/tackle was extremely raw, but he hasn't looked it in training camp. He's dominated physically and if he holds up well at right tackle in the games, it could prompt the Ravens to part ways with Bryant McKinnie.
Tommy Streeter, WR: A sixth-round pick out of Miami, Streeter was viewed as a project but it's hard to overlook his physical tools. He's had an uneven training camp and it's on him to prove that he's further along than some observers suggest.
Justin Tucker, K: A kicking competition has bloomed in Baltimore with the undrafted free agent out of Texas having a near perfect training camp so far in his duel with Billy Cundiff. Tucker, however, has very little margin of error and almost certainly won't get as many chances as Cundiff in preseason games.