When the Ravens drafted Odafe Oweh in the first round, the buzzword was "project."
He came with extremely rare physical traits, but the trade-off (and why he was still available at pick No. 31) was he got a late start to football and his technique was still a bit raw. He didn't have any sacks in his final year of college.
Well, after an impressive offseason and training camp, the Ravens aren't viewing Oweh's rookie season as a developmental year. Outside Linebackers Coach Drew Wilkins – the main man in charge of Oweh's growth – expects his rookie to make plays now.
"The thing that he has that not a lot of rookies do is he's got that sense of urgency," Wilkins said. "He understands [that] we have big expectations for him, from Week One. This isn't a project. This is a guy that's going to come in and play for us right away."
Last week, CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso, who hasn't been to a single Ravens practice, labeled Oweh as a preseason “disappointment” so far among the NFL's rookie first-round picks.
"We couldn't be more pleased with where he's at right now," Wilkins said. "I had a chance this summer to go watch that Orioles prospect Adley Rutschman. He's got three years to get ready; we've got three preseason games. (laughter) So, we're going to hit the ground running right now. He knows that."
Oweh will be a key part of an outside linebacker rotation with Justin Houston, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser and fellow rookie Daelin Hayes. Oweh is listed on the depth chart behind Bowser at SAM linebacker. If Bowser handles much of the pass coverage reps from that position (a job he excelled in last season), then Oweh would get most of the other reps. It's a role very similar to what Matthew Judon, who departed in free agency to New England, held the past several years.
Oweh let a sack in his first preseason game slip through his fingers, but he's been a standout in training camp practices. His speed around the edge has been too much to handle on numerous plays, and he's constantly running to the football. He will help shut down outside runs, screens and bubble passes.
"Whether it's the run game, whether it's executing the defense, whether it's his one-on-one pass rush, whether it's two-on-two games, whether it's anything that he needs to do to execute highly in our defense, he needs to be there now, and we feel great about where he's at," Wilkins said.
Jaylon Ferguson Won a Job With His 'Dominant' Edge-Setting
At the start of training camp, Jaylon Ferguson appeared to be on the bubble. When the Ravens signed Justin Houston, it seemed the numbers might not work out in Ferguson's favor.
However, Ferguson cemented his job over the course of training camp, and particularly with a good showing during joint practices in Carolina.
"He's gotten so much better in every facet, but the thing you love about him, that you can take to the bank, is he's going to set a dominant edge. Any time there's run at him, he's knocking that back," Wilkins said.
"[When] you get to this Year Three, a guy like Jaylon, that's sink or swim, and when we went down to Carolina, he looked like Michael Phelps. (laughter) He was swimming all over the place. So that was exciting to see. He's taken that next step."
Wilkins said Ferguson is executing the Ravens' pressure package at a high level and improved individually as a rusher. He has 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons and will be looking to improve on that this year. But his top job will be helping against the run.
"He's always been a great, physical player, but he's taken it to another level," Wilkins said.
A Ja'Wuan James Return Is Still on Track
One roster move that shouldn't be forgotten is right tackle Ja'Wuan James moving to the reserve/non-football injury list. James is now eligible to return to game action as early as Week 10, after missing the first eight games and following the bye.
When the Ravens signed James in June, Head Coach John Harbaugh said there was a chance the former first-round pick could return in November or December. Of course, that depends on how well he recovers from the torn Achilles he suffered in May, but Harbaugh said the outlook hasn't changed.
"It's kind of early to make any kind of prediction about time and stuff like that, but he looks good," Harbaugh said. "[He's] walking around. He's in the meetings and is very much a part of everything. So, that's where you want him to be right now."
Harbaugh Isn't Worried About Special Teams Youth
Among the Ravens' releases to get to 53 are veterans Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards, two defensive backs who have been keys to Baltimore's special teams units. Baltimore went young with their backups in the secondary, keeping Geno Stone, Chris Westry and undrafted rookie Ar'Darius Washington.
However, both Levine and Richards are still on the Ravens practice squad, so they can still coach up some of the younger players and could be called up to the active gameday roster. Other recent core special teams players such as Chris Board and Justice Hill were retained.
Harbaugh said he's not worried about the unit's youth, and doesn't see it as younger than any typical year.
"It's not like we've gone in there with some loaded veteran special teams group every single year," Harbaugh said. "I like the guys. I like the young guys, [and] I like the old guys. I like where we're at with special teams. I look forward to seeing how they do. It'll be highly competitive."