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Eisenberg: Ravens Rookie Class Evolving Into Difference-Maker


When the Ravens' decisions-makers spoke to the media after the 2015 season, they pinned a fair amount of blame for the team's 5-11 finish on injuries and turnovers.

Those factors certainly were major factors. In fact, I would predict substantive improvement for the Ravens in 2016 simply with fewer injuries and a better turnover ratio, no matter what else happens.

But another important lesson about the Ravens crystallized in 2015. They needed new blood. They didn't have enough young playmakers on either side of the ball.

They needed to start populating their depth chart with a new generation that could make game-changing plays, hopefully sooner rather than later.

It put a lot of pressure on the team's 2016 draft, and if training camp and the preseason are any measure, there's reason for optimism. The needle may have moved. As the Ravens approach their 2016 season opener against Buffalo this Sunday, it appears their current rookie class could evolve into quite a difference-maker.

The top pick, Ronnie Stanley, has gripped a starting job virtually from the moment he donned a purple baseball cap at the draft. A rookie blindside tackle is bound to experience hiccups – you can be sure Buffalo will attack him with blitz packages he didn't see in the preseason – and Stanley still has to prove himself. But the Ravens are excited about his size, speed and maturity.

They're also excited about what they're seeing from a handful of their other 2016 picks.

The class could produce a second opening day starter depending on what happens at left guard, where Alex Lewis, a fourth-round pick, stepped in for injured John Urschel in the preseason and held his own. Urschel might reclaim the job, but regardless, the Ravens' offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, already predicted Lewis "will be a starter in the NFL." He meant soon, I do believe.

If a draft produces 40 percent of your starting offensive line, it's a success. But what about those new playmakers that were on a wish list?

Well, Kenneth Dixon, another fourth-round pick, was hurtling toward the top of the running back depth chart until a knee injury derailed his momentum. He'll be out a while and the Ravens really hope he returns uncompromised because he displayed quickness, vision and surprising strength before going down.

The fact that Justin Forsett is still on the team after some roster manipulations eases any short-term concerns at the position, but Joe Flacco's high praise for Dixon in a recent podium interview indicated the organization's enthusiasm for the rookie.

Chris Moore, yet another fourth round pick (there were five, remember), also is exceeding expectations. Originally labeled a pure speed receiver, he has run solid routes, attained separation and displayed sure hands. He's currently situated behind bigger names on the depth chart, but by cutting Jeremy Butler and putting Michael Campanaro and Chris Matthews on injured reserve, the Ravens showed faith in Moore. He'll get some snaps.

Of course, receiver Breshad Perriman was expected to make plays in 2015 after coming to the Ravens as a first-round pick, but a pair of knee injuries delayed the start of his career. Now he's finally healthy, essentially another rookie, and in need of time to find his footing. But the Ravens are expecting a difference-maker.

On defense, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, a fifth-round pick, led the Ravens with three sacks in the preseason. Only four players in the entire NFL had more preseason sacks.

In search of new pass rushers, the Ravens took a shot with Judon, who is from a Division II school. But he's 24, 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, and so dominated backups in the early preseason games that the Ravens gave him snaps against starters. He passed the test.

Not every 2016 rookie is generating such raves. Kamalei Correa, the second-round pick, had a quiet preseason. Bronson Kaufusi, the third-round pick, is out for the year with a broken ankle.

But rookies make up almost one-fifth of the Ravens' roster, with cornerbacks Tavon Young and Maurice Canady and defensive linemen Willie Henry and Michael Pierce also having survived the final cuts to round out a 10-man rookie class (Keenan Reynolds is on the practice squad).

Admittedly, if the Ravens go anywhere this season, veterans such as Flacco, Terrell Suggs and Marshal Yanda will lead them. It's not clear yet how, or if, some of the rookies will fit in.

But it could easily develop that Flacco looks around the huddle in November and sees Stanley, Lewis, Dixon and Perriman – a sure sign that the organization's evolutionary wheel is turning.

I'd call that a good sign.

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