Ravens Have 'Solid Foundation' Of Young Players


After the Ravens' season-ending team meeting on Sunday, Head Coach Harbaugh asked the first- and second-year players to stay behind.

He brought them all into the first three rows of the auditorium for a chat about the "unique challenges they face and opportunities they have going forward."

While veterans such as quarterback Joe Flacco, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, inside linebacker Daryl Smith and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. are the pillars in Baltimore, it's those first- and second-year players that will occupy many key positions next year.

"We have a solid foundation of a football team underneath us right now," Harbaugh said Tuesday.

"[We have] young guys who have turned out to be good players that are going to be good players going forward that are going to be here, and we can build on that. And that's very exciting."

While Baltimore's recent rookie classes have had a tough time making an impact outside special teams, this year's class had five players who started at least one game and 11 players who saw game action.

First-round pick C.J. Mosley was a Pro Bowl inside linebacker and could be the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. He finished seventh in the NFL in tackles (133) and added two interceptions and three sacks. He started all 16 games.

Second-round defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan missed four games because of knee and ankle injuries, but was effective when on the field. He notched four sacks and 23 tackles in the regular season and another sack in the postseason. He filled in admirably as a starter when Haloti Ngata was suspended for four games.

Third-round tight end Crockett Gillmore played in 17 games, including the postseason, and was a physical blocker at the point of attack who also flashed some receiving skills with 10 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. He added another touchdown against the Steelers in the wild-card round.

Fourth-round running back Lorenzo Taliaferro was a powerful backup runner, particularly in the red zone, before his season was cut short by a foot injury.

Fifth-round guard John Urschel started five games, including the postseason, and more than held his own against Patriots' Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the divisional playoffs.

Seventh-round wide receiver Michael Campanaro missed 12 games because of injuries, but provided a jolt when he played, catching seven passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in the regular season. He had four grabs for 39 yards against New England.

Undrafted rookie tackle James Hurst started seven games, including the playoffs, and made Patriots outside linebacker Chandler Jones go unnoticed in the divisional playoff.

"This [rookie] class is probably the smartest overall football I.Q. class that we've had, and that goes a long way in why they've done so well as a group," Harbaugh said. "So, that's something we can hang our hat on a little bit going forward in the draft."

The rookies aren't the only ones. A few second-year players also emerged this season.

While first-round safety Matt Elam struggled and second-round linebacker Arthur Brown spent most of his year inactive, the Ravens had breakout performances from third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams, fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk and fifth-round tackle Rick Wagner.

Williams started all but two games and notched 47 tackles and a half-sack. He was dominant at times in the middle. Juszczyk was Justin Forsett's lead blocker and caught 19 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. Wagner was one of the league's best right tackles in his 15 starts before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

The key now will be for those young players to continue developing.

After the team meeting, Harbaugh pointed out to the group that the average NFL career is three-and-a-half years. In other words, this is about the time when players either make it or they don't. No time to get lackadaisical.

"Just as soon as you are in this league, sometimes you're out of it," Harbaugh said. "And you have to realize that you have to improve dramatically to maintain and to build a career in this league. They have an opportunity to do that, but they have to understand that they have to be a better football player when they come back in mid-April than they are leaving here this week."

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