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Eisenberg: Can't Recall When Ravens Counted on This Many Draft Picks


What needs to go right for the Ravens to have a winning season and get back to the playoffs in 2017?

Whenever I'm asked, I start with Joe Flacco. The way the NFL works these days, you pretty much live and die with your quarterback's performance.

If Flacco raises his game in his second year removed from a serious knee injury, it would be a major step in the right direction. The organization was encouraged to see him moving so well and looking so comfortable in spring practices.

It also goes without saying that the secondary needs to be better at protecting leads after the organization made it a top priority during the offseason, investing substantial free-agent dollars and a top draft pick.

But just as vital to the team's prospects in 2017 is the ability of a handful of young players to handle starting roles.

I can't recall when the Ravens were counting on draft picks of recent vintage to fill this many needs.

On offense, they're hoping for young guys to step up at fullback, center, right tackle and tight end. On defense, there are starting jobs available on the line – two, actually – and at both inside and outside linebacker.

That's a total of eight spots, and, for now, all will go to players the Ravens have drafted since 2014. Translation: The pressure is on their recent drafts to bear fruit.

It's still possible the front office will elect to fill one or more of the spots with veteran free agents; there's certainly been a lot of chatter about center Nick Mangold, who remains available. The right tackle market will also be closely monitored.

But with limited salary cap flexibility, the Ravens can only make one or two moves at most. It's a certainty that they'll activate their "next man up" mantra to fill most of the holes.

You've probably heard the names in circulation as possible starters at various positions. John Urschel, James Hurst and Ryan Jensen on the offensive line. Lorenzo Taliaferro at fullback. Nick Boyle, Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller and Maxx Williams at tight end. Kamalei Correa at inside linebacker. Matt Judon, Za'Darius Smith and Tyus Bowser at outside linebacker. Michael Pierce, Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley on the defensive line.

It's a long list, and there's more: The team would also love to see receivers Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro and running back Kenneth Dixon handle larger loads. And, of course, much is expected from Breshad Permian, the former first-round pick now slated to start at wide receiver.

What do those players have in common? Only Pierce wasn't drafted by the Ravens since 2014. (He made the team as undrafted rookie last season.) They've progressed at different rates, some making immediate contributions, others slowly developing. Many have dealt with injuries hindering their progress. Three have faced drug suspensions.

The bottom line? They haven't cracked the starting lineup, at least not consistently.

But a window of opportunity is open for them now … all of them.

Right now, the likeliest to earn starting roles are Pierce, Correa and Urschel. Pierce was a Pro Football Focus darling in a reserve role last year. Correa looked the part as he ran with the starters during spring practices. Urschel has handled the starting center job before, and he's bulked up for the job.

Others are also gaining momentum. The front office is high on Boyle, and Taliaferro is looking more and more like a possible answer at fullback. The Ravens need to replace Kyle Juszczyk, and the only other option on the roster is an undrafted free agent Ricky Ortiz.

It's a new position for Taliaferro, a 2013 draft pick who obviously must stay healthy after dealing with a foot injury the past two seasons. But if he can handle the blocking load, he could become an interesting backfield option.

Fans tend to roll their eyes when a player who doesn't start as a rookie is mentioned as a possible answer one or two years later. If he doesn't start immediately, how good can he be?

But that's unfair. In 2016, USA Today tracked all 253 of that year's draft picks. Only 33 started as rookies. Almost 200 were backups.

Most young players take a while to develop into starters. The Ravens are counting on the time being right for a handful of their homegrown players.

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