As soon as tight end Mark Andrews became a Raven, he had high expectations for the team's rookie class. He knew his own ability. He knew rookie right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., his college teammate at Oklahoma. And he knew a little something about quarterback Lamar Jackson, who Andrews first met at the Heisman Trophy presentation last December.
Jackson arrived in New York last December as the 2016 Heisman winner, hoping to win the award again. Andrews was there to support his close friend and Oklahoma teammate Baker Mayfield, who ultimately beat out Jackson to win the 2017 Heisman.
What was Andrews' first impression of Jackson at that fancy midtown Manhattan affair? Underneath Jackson's sweet-looking tuxedo, Andrews sensed a player who cared about winning.
"Even before I met Lamar, Baker was really high on him, talking about how good of a guy he is," Andrews said. "I saw it for myself then and I see it now. Just a standup guy who can handle the expectations."
Months later, Andrews' expectations for Baltimore's rookie class haven't changed. The Ravens (4-4) have lost two straight and need a shot of adrenaline. Part of the solution could be their rookie class being depended on more and more.
Brown has started the past two games at right tackle in place of injured James Hurst. Jackson is being worked into the offense more frequently as a situational quarterback. Andrews has been the team's top pass-catching tight end (18 catches, 194 yards, two touchdowns). Fellow rookie tight end Hayden Hurst caught his first touchdown pass Sunday, healthy again after foot surgery in August. Rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young is fourth on the team in tackles (33) and has 2 ½ sacks. Rookie offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman filled in capably as the starting left guard against the New Orleans Saints when Alex Lewis was injured.
If the Ravens are going to make the playoffs, their rookie class must help them get there. Andrews says he accepts the challenge.
"They brought us in here to do just that," Andrews said. "They were one game shy of the playoffs last year, so just having us rookies here being able to contribute – especially this latter half of the season – is going to be big. That's what we came in here to do, to come in right away and play and make an impact."
Brown is expected to start his third straight game Sunday with James Hurst (back) out. There is a chance he will remain the starting right tackle even after Hurst returns. Having played 68 snaps in each of the last two weeks, Brown is embracing the opportunity.
"I'm having a blast," Brown said. "This is what I do for a living. I love it. I can't say it's solely on us as rookies to get things turning in the right direction. I'd say it's on all of us to bring as much energy as we can to get the momentum back rolling."
Brown started every preseason game for the Ravens, but regular season football is different, competing against first-team defensive lineman for 60 minutes. Brown has shown his tenacity. On the Ravens' first drive of the game in Carolina, he drove a defender into the Panthers' own sideline. It was such a physical, dominating play that a Panthers player on the bench hit Brown, drawing a penalty.
"He's a guy that's going to be a really good football player, and I think he's a really good football player right now," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He's ready to go out there and win football games for us. He's only going to get better every single rep. Not just every single game – every single rep, he gets better. He's proven he can handle a whole game. I expect him to be better this week than he was last week and the week before. He wants to be good. That means a lot."
Jackson could be the biggest X-factor in the Ravens' offense down the stretch, especially if his reps increase and the Ravens give him more throwing opportunities. Jackson is making positive yards as a runner and his first touchdown pass to Hurst in Sunday's loss to Carolina could be a confidence boost to both rookies.
The Ravens know Jackson can make positive yards as a runner. But can he make consistent throws in key situations? The results have varied dramatically. On Sunday, Jackson threw a terrible one-hop incompletion to a wide-open Willie Snead IV in the first quarter. However, Jackson's fourth-quarter pass to Hurst was a perfect strike.
If Jackson is asked to make key throws in November and December, what will happen? Andrews says watching Jackson throw in practice every day gives him confidence.
"He's a quarterback first, and I think people kind of forget that," Andrews said. "He's got a chip on his shoulder to prove he can be a starting quarterback. He can sling the ball. I think when he gets the chance to and goes into a game, he's only going to shine."
Jackson says he will stay ready and confident, no matter what he is asked to do.
"Not like the preseason, when I was starting games slow," Jackson said. "Avoid mistakes. Hit the open guy. Make plays. Help us win games."
Hurst is also a rookie under scrutiny, a first-round pick who the Ravens need to become a bigger playmaker (three catches, 36 yards, one touchdown). The addition of Hurst and Andrews brought a younger dynamic to the Ravens' tight end corps, with 25-year-old Nick Boyle becoming the oldest member of a group that also includes Maxx Williams. Boyle and Williams have become mentors, trying to help the rookie tight ends remain confident.
"Hayden knows he's coming in as a first-rounder, which creates huge expectations," Boyle said. "Missing time with his injury is not what he wanted. But we're with him. The fans want him to go out and produce every day, but we know he's doing the best he can. The more reps he gets, the better he's going to be.
"Maxx and I try to help Hayden and Mark get acclimated as fast as possible. When you're a rookie, your head's spinning. We can answer certain questions for them, like what's the first thing that should go through your mind when a certain play is called. We can help them with technique. And how to take coaching, especially when you make a mistake. That's a big thing for rookies. You can't be too sensitive. You have to be coachable and not let words hurt you."
The last two losses have hurt the Ravens, making Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers the biggest of the season so far. Harbaugh doesn't believe in rookies hitting a physical or mental wall during the season. He's hoping the Ravens' rookies are hitting their stride.
"We want guys that like football," Harbaugh said. "You get tired, you sleep eight, nine hours every day, come back and go to work. If you get mentally tired, how much do you love football? What else would you rather be doing? You've been getting ready for this your whole life. This is what you're all about, playing in the National Football League. Now all of a sudden in November, 'I'm tired. I need a break?' No, it's time.
"We need our rookies. Our rookies have worked hard. We've got a bunch of rookies that love football. We wanted them to play this year. We needed them to play this year. We got them ready to play, and they're playing. Now they got to go win for us."