The Ravens' rookie class made a loud entrance this season, which bodes well for the team's future.
Imagine the Ravens without quarterback Lamar Jackson, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., running back Gus Edwards and tight end Mark Andrews. Those rookies played major roles in helping Baltimore win the AFC North, and there were other first-year players who made significant contributions.
Kenny Young played all 16 games and made 51 tackles as a backup inside linebacker. Top pick Hayden Hurst (13 catches, 163 yards, one touchdown) started coming into his own late in the season, after missing the first four games due to August foot surgery. Bradley Bozeman was a valuable backup offensive lineman appearing in 14 games, and was inserted into the starting lineup midway through Sunday's playoff game. Anthony Averett played 11 games as a backup cornerback.
It was a rookie class that brought production to the field and energy to the locker room. Each 2018 draft pick was assigned a locker along the rear wall. The back of the locker room became the rookie hangout where they joked, conversed, and formed a bond that helped them flourish.
There was an overriding attitude with this class – confident but not cocky.
Obviously, Jackson was the rookie with the biggest impact, the catalyst for their midseason turnaround after a 4-5 start. His talent is obvious, but Jackson's leadership qualities should not be overlooked as he assumes the mantle of franchise quarterback.
Joe Flacco's class after losing his starting job made the quarterback transition far easier than it could have been. But Jackson also handled the situation well, never acting as if the attention and success he received was going to his head. Veterans found Jackson easy to follow, despite their respect for Flacco. Second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey believes Jackson is well-suited to fill any leadership void that offseason personnel changes may bring.
"I think a leader is kind of what other people think of you," Humphrey said. "I don't really know if it's something [that] you can just say, 'I'm going to be a leader this year.' But, you have a rookie quarterback that led us to a lot of wins. I think [Lamar Jackson] is a natural leader in itself, so whatever way it falls, I always know we're going to have Lamar."
Brown became the starting right tackle Week 7, and from that point he never missed a snap, nor did he allow a sack during the regular season. But Brown gave more pressure in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and he was obviously stung by the defeat. Packing his bags Monday, Brown said he would return to Oklahoma, where he played college football, to train and become a better player.
"I think I played well for a rookie, not for a sophomore," Brown said. "I want to be one of the greats in this league. It's going to take a lot of work to get where I want to be – obviously, that's All-Pro and being as consistent as I can be, for as long as I can be. Really, just reshaping my body as much as possible, just continuing to get stronger, more explosive, lighter."
With veteran tight ends Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams both free agents, Andrews and Hurst could play bigger roles next. It was a splendid first year for Andrews (34 catches, 552 yards, three touchdowns), who made one of the biggest plays of the season with his 68-yard touchdown reception from Jackson in Week 16 against the Chargers. Andrews broke Maxx Williams' franchise rookie record for production by a rookie tight end.
For Hurst, it wasn't the year he expected after being the Ravens' first pick and the 25th-pick overall. After an impressive training camp and preseason, everything changed for Hurst when he suffered a foot stress fracture in August that required surgery. He missed the first four games, and after he returned it took him almost the entire season to feel 100 percent.
Hurst never made excuses, but he's anxious to spend the offseason getting completely healthy.
"I was able to come back and contribute a little bit, but there's a lot more in the tank," Hurst said. "I'm excited to get healthy this offseason, work out and get back next year. Hopefully, I can be even more of a contributor."
Edwards made the biggest leap of any Ravens rookie. He signed as an undrafted free agent. He landed a spot on the practice squad after being released on cutdown day in September. He wasn't promoted to the active roster until Oct. 13.
However, Edwards became the Ravens' first rookie running back with consecutive 100-yard games since Jamal Lewis in 2000. He heads into the offseason as the No. 1 back on the depth chart, but wants to work on his pass-catching and pass-blocking this offseason, improving his chances to be a three-down back.
"I think I definitely proved that I belong," Edwards said. "But at the same time, I know I have a lot of work to do. I want to definitely contribute more to the team and to the offense next season."
There are other rookies who didn't play much that hope to earn a bigger role – linebacker Chris Board, wide receivers Jordan Lasley and Jaleel Scott, defensive tackle Zach Sieler, and practice squad/injured players such as safety DeShon Elliott, offensive tackle Greg Senat and running back De'Lance Turner.
But it was easy to like what the Ravens got from its rookie class. A talented group is just getting started.
"I think as a group, we set goals when we got in here that we wanted to be as dominant as possible and all do what we needed to do to make an impact," Brown said. "For the most part, we all kind of held up to our own words."