Eisenberg: Ravens Hope Another Rookie Class Grows Up Fast

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If you’re wondering how the newest Ravens look at rookie camp this weekend, here’s my standing assessment for this annual event:

They look young. Really young. Because they ARE.

Sorry, but it’s hard to come up with too many other meaningful takeaways from the gathering of two dozen-plus draft picks, undrafted free agents and tryout guys. They’re all superior players to get this far. Some have higher ceilings than others. They’re all exhilarated to be taking their first steps as pros at the Under Armour Performance Center. But they look like college athletes, right down to the backpacks they tote around.

Right now, it’s hard to envision them having too much impact on the Ravens in 2019. They look like they should be studying for finals in their spare time. Come to think of it, some probably are.

They certainly don’t look ready to be a determining element in the rugged AFC North.

But the Ravens are hopeful of seeing their 2019 rookie class do just that, i.e., collectively develop to the point of becoming a significant difference-maker on the field.

It happened a year ago. When the Ravens’ 2018 rookies attended their first camp in Owings Mills shortly after the draft, they looked every bit as callow as this year’s group. But they grew up fast and wound up delivering a lot more than their looks suggested was possible. In the end, they were the difference between the Ravens winning their first division title since 2012 and not making the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

Yup, they were that important.

Think about it. Lamar Jackson led the Ravens’ surge down the stretch. Gus Edwards led the team in rushing. Orlando Brown Jr. took over at right tackle. Mark Andrews led all rookie tight ends in the NFL in receiving yardage.

Combined with what Hayden Hurst, Kenny Young, Bradley Bozeman and Chris Board also provided, the rookies easily exceeded the contributions of Baltimore’s preceding rookie classes going back several years. Those classes also featured some fine players and performances, just not as many.

Several decades ago, it was assumed most first-year NFL players needed time to get acclimated and become truly productive. There were always exceptions, but teams knew better than to expect much from most rookies.

But the league is a much younger place now. Because of the salary cap, teams frequently have to go with inexpensive, young talent over veterans who earn more. Also, constantly rising salaries encourage college players to turn pro sooner. The average age of an NFL player is always dropping.

In that environment, many teams have no choice but to count on first-year players to fill certain roles.

I’d argue that one reason the Ravens slipped a bit after winning Super Bowl 47 is they didn’t always get as much from their rookies as they did in 2018.

How this year’s rookies develop will certainly help determine how the 2019 season goes in Baltimore. They’ll be hard-pressed to exceed the overall influence of last year’s class, which included a new quarterback, a huge thing. But just like a year ago, the Ravens need help and they’d love to see rookies provide it.

Marquise (Hollywood) Brown and Miles Boykin are here to make the passing game more dynamic. Jaylon Ferguson is here to give the pass rush a boost. Justice Hill has a reputation as a home-run-hitting back. Ben Powers will get a long look at left guard.

If they all check the boxes they’re here to check, I’m pretty sure the Ravens will have a successful season in 2019.

But if they don’t, well, that’s a scenario the Ravens don’t want to contemplate.

There’s more to the class than just those high picks, of course. Edwards and Board, a valuable special teams contributor, were undrafted free agents a year ago. Who knows what lies in that talent pool this year?

This weekend, as the rookies begin their indoctrination to the NFL, it’s hard to imagine them shouldering a heavy load by November or December. Everything is new. They don’t even know the Ravens’ calls and plays. But they’ll grow up fast, or at least, the Ravens sure hope they do.

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