High Expectations on Class of '08

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Much has been made of the need for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to avoid a sophomore slump in his second year, but Baltimore's other 2008 draft picks also have a lot riding on their performances this year.

From second-rounder Ray Rice to seventh-round receiver Justin Harper, the Ravens need all they can get from this young class.

Rice's role already seems to be growing.

Primarily a third-down back last year, Rice has been taking snaps with the starters throughout the majority of the offseason minicamps.

As a rookie, he placed third on the team with 107 carries for 454 yards, and he is obviously aiming to increase those numbers. Rice added a noticeable amount of bulk to his upper body to be more of an every-down runner.

Head coach John Harbaugh believes Rice can fill that role.

"Not that he wasn't a tackle-breaker last year - he was a tackle-to-tackle runner at Rutgers, that was what he did - but he's come a long way," Harbaugh said. "Now, people see him as a third-down back because of the success he had last year, but I don't think we have any question that he can be an every-down back."

The Ravens selected a trio of contributors in the third round – linebacker Tavares Gooden, safety Tom Zbikowski and offensive tackle Oniel Cousins.

Gooden is already finding his comfort zone in a starting role. He was tabbed months ago as the heir to Bart Scott's vacated position at inside linebacker. Zbikowski will likely have the same responsibilities as last year, when he entered the game in passing situations as part of a seven-defensive back formation.

Cousins, meanwhile, is interesting because he could have a big impact on an offensive line that is in need of depth at tackle. Jared Gaither and Michael Oher seem to have the starting positions locked down, but Cousins and Adam Terry (knee) are the top backups.

Currently nursing a chest injury, Cousins thinks he is ready to step up after only playing in six games in 2008, all on special teams.

"I'm just working hard to keep getting better," Cousins said. "Coach Matsko pushes us out there, and I want my coaches to be able to trust me on the field."

While sixth-round draftee Haruki Nakamura teams with Zbikowski as another key sub at safety and special teams ace, wideouts Marcus Smith (fourth round) and Justin Harper (seventh round) are being closely monitored because the Ravens need a playmaking receiver to break out.

"I definitely think it is a competition, and this is a big year," Smith said. "Not only a competition within myself, but with the guys that didn't have a defined role coming into last year. We need to make those plays in order to get a defined role to where we're working with Joe on a regular basis."

In addition, fourth-rounder David Hale recently switched from guard/tackle to center, where he solidifies the line behind Matt Birk and Chris Chester.

For all their expectations, it's evident that every sophomore will be counted upon heavily. But it is a burden that each player seems to accept and relish. Flacco has already shown that he has matured and can take control of the offense. Rice is beginning to display that maturation.

As the offseason wears on, Baltimore hopes the entire Class of 2008 follows suit.

"That's the main thing," Cousins noted. "We all have to continue to get better every day, because this is a big season for us. I think that with a year under our belts, that is going to transfer to the field and continue to learn.

"Everybody is focused on their job and what they have to do."

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