In any projection about how an NFL team can improve from one season to the next, the focus tends to be on new blood, i.e., players possibly arriving in the draft or free agency.
It’s understandable. Nothing is more tantalizing than an unknown quantity looming on the horizon.
In the end, though, many holes are filled in less exciting fashion, by guys already on a team’s roster. Pro football’s economics all but demand it, for the simple reason that the salary cap’s limitations preclude teams from “buying” the solution to every issue. They have no choice but to “promote from within” at times.
Such promotions can be difficult to foresee. Most involve young players who have taken more of a developmental track instead of becoming immediate contributors. Once they’re backups, it’s hard to envision them making the leap to the front line.
But it happens every year, as the Ravens can attest.
This time a year ago, no one could have imagined that offensive linemen James Hurst, Matt Skura and Ryan Jensen, linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and defensive tackle Carl Davis all would become major puzzle pieces. They had made just 29 career starts between them.
In 2017, though, all five became integral contributors and they combined to make 66 starts. It helped the Ravens immeasurably.
For lack of a better term, I’ll call them Step-Up Guys. That sounds like the title to a Judd Apatow comedy, but I’m referring to players who “step up” to starting from the lesser roles they’d assumed.
It’s not a given that the Ravens will benefit again from such players in 2018 – you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen. But the Ravens had better hope more Step-Up Guys come along, as they have multiple holes to fill and limited salary-cap flexibility.
Which Ravens could emerge from lesser roles in 2018? The possibilities include linebackers Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, defensive linemen Chris Wormley and Bronson Kaufusi, and receivers Tim White and Quincy Adeboyejo. But here are my top five candidates:
1) Za’Darius Smith. The third-year linebacker received his share of snaps in 2017 while registering 3.5 sacks – two fewer than he accumulated as a rookie. But he almost made a bunch of plays, ranking second on the team in quarterback hurries behind Terrell Suggs. That suggests he could take a leap forward in 2018, especially since his rookie contract expires after the season, meaning there’s money to be made.
*2) Chris Moore. *The speedy 2016 fourth-round pick has contributed mostly on special teams so far, but he began to exhibit play-making offensive skills toward the end of last season. The position is wide open, to say the least, and Moore will get an extended chance to prove he is an emerging talent.
3) Kenneth Dixon. Injuries and suspensions have curtailed his pro career until now, but he has impressed in his limited time on the field. Now he’s healthy and free from suspension, and the Ravens’ opinion hasn’t changed: They really like him. Although Alex Collins is established as the No. 1 running back, the Ravens want a mix of players and skills at the position.
4) Nico Siragusa. The Ravens have a record of developing young linemen who aren’t top draft picks, and here comes another big, rumbling prospect. A major knee injury denied Siragusa the chance to play as a rookie in 2017, but another opportunity may exist for him in 2018 with Jensen and Hurst due to hit free agency and guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis also coming back from injuries. The key is whether he’s fully recovered.
*5) Brent Urban. *This one needs an asterisk. Finally healthy in 2017, the hulking defensive end was established as a Step-Up starter when he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 3. The Ravens really missed him, as they set a franchise record for most yards allowed per rushing attempt in 2017. Now Urban is a pending free agent, so his return isn’t guaranteed. But there’s mutual interest, and if healthy, he could be a steal as a projected starter with a relatively inexpensive price tag.