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Second-year players' slump has hurt Ravens

Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan during a game last season. Mosley, Jernigan and other second-year Ravens have struggled to live up to the lofty standard set during their rookie years.
Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan during a game last season. Mosley, Jernigan and other second-year Ravens have struggled to live up to the lofty standard set during their rookie years. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

At the end of last season, after Ravens coach John Harbaugh broke down his final team meeting, he asked the rookies and second-year players to remain in the room for a challenge.

So many first-year players stepped up and into key roles for the Ravens in 2014 that it was natural to expect more, and better, from them in 2015. But Harbaugh warned that sustaining their rookie-year performance wouldn't be a matter of staying at the same level — he told them they'd need to "improve dramatically to maintain and to build a career in this league."

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As the Ravens search for solutions at 1-5, the combination of inconsistent play, injuries, and a lack of opportunity have conspired to limit the impact of those second-year players and make Harbaugh's warning in January seem prescient.

"It's part of the process," Harbaugh said last week. "We have high expectations for C.J. [Mosley] and for Timmy [Jernigan] and for anybody else that you might be thinking of. We want those guys to progress as rapidly as possible."

On a defense that has seemingly been in transition since the Super Bowl XLVII win, Mosley, the team's 2014 first-round NFL draft pick, and Jernigan, who was selected in the second round, were seen as foundational pieces. In all likelihood, they still are.

Mosley was a Rookie of the Year candidate who made the Pro Bowl after compiling 129 tackles, three sacks, and two interceptions as a rookie. The only way the number in his Pro Bowl appearances column will be "1" at the end of his career is if there's another digit before or after it.

But the Week 5 loss to the Cleveland Browns was his worst performance as a Raven, and despite picking it up with six tackles and a pass defense against the San Francisco 49ers, Mosley has spent the season dealing with teams targeting his deficiencies in pass defense.

Mosley doesn't think teams are picking on him any more than normal. Instead, he puts it on his shoulders.

"Year One has pretty much been the same as Year Two," Mosley said. "I've just got to make the plays I made last year, and unfortunately, some of those plays, I haven't made. It's still a long season ahead."

Jernigan, too, entered with big expectations. When stalwart defensive tackle Haloti Ngata missed four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy last season, Jernigan stepped in seamlessly. His four sacks were a Ravens rookie record for defensive tackles, and he gleefully anticipated an every-down role after Ngata's trade to the Detroit Lions.

A knee injury cost him Week 1 against the Broncos, and on his return in Week 2, the coaching staff was so uninspired by Jernigan's performance that rookie Carl Davis started the next two games, with Jernigan relegated to a pass-rush role in substitution packages. Jernigan overtook Davis in snaps in Week 5, then took back his starting role in Week 6, his most impactful game of the season.

Jernigan acknowledged that for him and the rest of the class, the expectations were high.

"Everybody's held to a certain standard," Jernigan said. "Our coaches hold us to a very high standard — they drafted you, they brought you in, they followed you from wherever you were at. It was for a reason. … As far as expectations, of course they were high. We know. But that's the nature of the beast."

The only player to clearly elevate from his first year to his second year among the 2014 draft class is tight end Crockett Gillmore, who matched his 2014 production in the span of two games this season before a calf strain in Week 3 grounded him for the second half of that game and the ensuing two contests. Undrafted linebacker Zachary Orr, too, has seen his role grow outside of special teams in his second season.

But injuries such as Gillmore's are just as big a factor in the class' lack of impact as anything else.

The team's other third-round pick, safety Terrence Brooks, saw his largest role of the season in Week 5 as a nickel defensive back, but a thumb injury kept him out of Week 6. His long-term status is unclear.

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Both fourth-round picks, defensive end Brent Urban and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, have dealt with injuries since they arrived, too. Urban tore his ACL last training camp and missed the entire season, then went on injured reserve with a designation to return this year after tearing his biceps in training camp. He could return soon, but the same can't be said for Taliaferro.

The unquestioned No. 2 running back behind Justin Forsett after Bernard Pierce was released, Taliaferro last week had surgery on the Lisfranc foot sprain that landed him on injured reserve last December and is out for the rest of this season.

Fifth-round draft pick John Urschel played well as a backup guard last year, but has had scant opportunity this year. Elsewhere on the offensive line, backup left tackle James Hurst's third long-term substitute role for starter Eugene Monroe didn't go as well as the first two did for the undrafted rookie.

And receiver Michael Campanaro, whose impact was growing after playing just four games in an injury-plagued rookie year, is on injured reserve with a back injury.

For a team so reliant on draft picks filling in for veterans, the late-round picks not contributing is certainly a factor in this slow start. But the team remains confident in them, and the potential stars taken at the top of last year's draft.

"I have a lot of confidence in both [Mosley and Jernigan], specifically, and expect them to play at the highest level no matter how young they are," Harbaugh said. "We drafted them for a reason, we like them as players, and we expect them to play really well."

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