Amid the usual swelter of late June in Baltimore, I can't think of a better way to start a column than with a Christmas-themed riddle. I mean, even just a theoretical blast of December chill feels good, right?
So here goes: How are spring OTA and minicamp practices like Christmas morning for an NFL team and its fans?
Because you're opening shiny new toys, in the form of that year's rookies, and seeing what you've got.
Few things are more exciting than discovering a gift you just received is exactly what you wanted or needed, and the Ravens had plenty to get excited about at their spring practices this year. Several rookies stood out.
Their top draft pick, wide receiver Rashod Bateman, performed with a veteran's poise and skill. Their other first-round pick, outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, exhibited superior physical tools. Massive Ben Cleveland began competing for the starting job at left guard. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace looked like a fourth-round steal. Outside linebacker Daelin Hayes showed off skills and savvy.
Yes, it was a Christmas-like experience, only with cicadas overhead instead of mistletoe.
You couldn't watch practice without contemplating how these new players might be able to help the Ravens in 2021.
But you also couldn't watch without noticing how much the Ravens' second-year players, their rookies of 2020, had improved after being with the team for a year.
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen was a plug-and-play rookie, but he looked quicker and far surer in pass coverage. Defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington showed off sculpted bodies that reflected a year of NFL-caliber conditioning. Defensive back Khalil Dorsey, a former undrafted rookie, looked like part of the solution at slot cornerback. Wide receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II looked quick and confident.
And no, I'm not forgetting J.K. Dobbins, already the team's top running back, who used the practices to polish his game.
They were last year's Christmas gifts, no longer the shiny new toys. Due to the pandemic, they didn't benefit from spring workouts, preseason games or in-season practices under normal conditions. They just got tossed into the fire of the NFL regular season, and all things considered, performed quite well – especially Queen and Dobbins.
But what a difference a year makes. Across the board, the rookies of 2020 are in better shape, more experienced, more mature, and I'd wager several nickels on them having more impact in 2021.
It's wise to keep that in mind when setting expectations for this year's rookies.
As good as they looked this spring, they haven't even been through a full contact practice or lined up against opponents hungering to demolish them. They're talented, but they're going to experience some hard knocks, as all rookies do. They're going to need to endure, adjust, learn, work, improve. It's a process.
In many cases, they may be more helpful to the Ravens down the line, in the future, as opposed to immediately.
There are exceptions, obviously. A team is always hoping for immediate impact from its top draft picks. Queen and Dobbins were home runs on that front, and the Ravens hope Bateman is another. Early signs are promising.
Beyond that, it's hard to gauge fair expectations.
The Ravens would love Oweh to emerge as a dangerous pass rusher, but stepping in and immediately getting the best of elite offensive tackles is a challenge; he might be more useful as a run stopper in the short term.
They'd love to see Cleveland emerge at left guard; his mountainous presence seemingly could elevate the offensive line. But he'll be competing for the job with other young players such as Ben Powers and Tyre Philips, who aren't exactly small and have both started NFL games, including in last year's playoffs.
It'll be interesting to see how Wallace fares against NFL-caliber, physical press coverage, which college receivers seldom see.
You get where I'm going with this, right? There's so much to like about the new players and maybe some will flash immediately, but remember, they just got here.