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Young Defensive Draft Picks' Time To Shine

Posted Nov 2, 2012

The Ravens are counting on Jimmy Smith, Terrence Cody, Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw.

When Terrence Cody was drafted in 2010, Defensive Line Coach Clarence Brooks made it clear that there’s a precedent for Baltimore defensive draft picks.

“What Clarence Brooks told me when I first came in is that, ‘We’re looking for big things from you,’” Cody said.

There’s a history of impactful defensive draft picks in Baltimore, including Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

Now, as the Ravens try to solve their defensive woes, they’ll need their recent crop of high defensive draft picks to step up and become impact players.

The list primarily consists of nose tackle Terrence Cody, cornerback Jimmy Smith, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and outside linebacker Paul Kruger.

They were all taken in the first two rounds during the past four years. And while they’ve all flashed their potential, they’re all still striving to break out.

“It’s going to be on us,” Smith said Wednesday. “As a group, we all feel like we’re going to step up and do it. It’s just that we’re young. There’s just a learning curve and when we’re there, we’re there.”

Smith was taken with the 27th-overall pick in 2011 and advertised as a potential shutdown cornerback who slipped down draft boards because of character concerns.

His young career got off on the wrong foot when hamstring issues limited him in training camp, then an ankle injury suffered on the opening kickoff of the regular season sent him to the trainer’s room for the next four weeks.

Smith came on at the end of last season, notching two interceptions in the regular season and another in the AFC championship. He entered this year gunning for a starting spot, and admits he was disappointed when he didn’t get it out of training camp.

Now Smith is a starter because of the season-ending knee injury suffered by Lardarius Webb.

“I don’t know exactly how [Suggs, Reed, Lewis and Ngata’s] careers started out, but mine hasn’t started out the way I’d hoped,” Smith said Wednesday.

“Everybody’s path isn’t going to be the same. Just because we got drafted in the first round, people think we’re going to come in and be Superman. Everybody has their own learning curve.”

For example, Smith is working on handling the double move, which gave him troubles in a spot start in San Diego last year and got him again twice in his first start this year in Houston. Smith said it’s a case of him getting too antsy to make a play and losing “eye discipline.”

Smith said he feels the pressure from the outside of being a first-round pick, and especially felt it this offseason as he was trying to become a starter. But he says he’s forgotten about that now and is just getting back to playing his game.

“I’m still a young football player,” he said. “I don’t really put that type of pressure on myself.”

Cody was drafted 57th overall in 2010, after Baltimore added outside linebacker Sergio Kindle 14 picks earlier. Kindle fractured his skull on the eve of his first training camp and is now on the practice squad.

Cody slowly broke in during his rookie year, then became a 16-game starter last season and notched 34 tackles.

He was a frequent offseason workout participant at the team’s training facility, and there were high hopes that this could be his breakout year. Yet Cody lost his starting job to veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu, who hadn’t played football in a year.

Neither Kemoeatu or Cody have been particularly effective up front as the Ravens run defense ranks 30th in the league (142.9 yards per game), after ranking second in that area last season.

“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot since I’ve been drafted, but I feel I have a lot more room to grow and to get better,” Cody said.

He was then asked whether he’s yet to become an impact player.

“I’m on the verge of doing that,” the third-year player replied.

Upshaw is still a rookie, and he’s had the most starts during his first year of the aforementioned group. He started five games while Suggs was sidelined with his Achilles injury. With Suggs back, Upshaw didn’t start and saw a fewer snaps than usual against the Houston Texans.

Upshaw had played well, notching 29 tackles, a half sack and a fumble recovery. He was gradually making more plays after early weight issues this season.

Kruger’s play has been somewhat inconsistent in what was tabbed as a potential breakout year. After logging 5.5 sacks [add] last season, Kruger originally looked to become a starter, but was beat out by Albert McClellan.

Kruger flashed in Kansas City, logging five tackles including three for loss. But he followed that up with back-to-back rough games against Dallas and Houston.

In order for the Ravens defense to turn around, it will need more consistent performances from its young crop of defensive talent.

“Like all young players, I think you want to see consistency,” Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said. “The guys that really become good at it are the guys that learn from those mistakes and become consistent.”

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