Rookies eager to seize the chance
As Harbaugh relies on new faces in key positions, the players resolve to step up
Most of the Ravens rookies’ lockers reside in the area of the training facility’s locker room known as “the cul-de-sac,” where as neighbors the players have been able to build a close relationship.
“If you’re having a rough day or you’re just feeling down, we’re all in the same row. So we just all talk,” cornerback Tavon Young said. “We have our fun back here.”
The lockers for Young, outside linebackers Kamalei Correa and Matthew Judon, running back Kenneth Dixon, nose tackle Michael Pierce and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor line up opposite those of wide receivers Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds, left guard Alex Lewis, defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, defensive tackle Willie Henry and cornerback Maurice Canady.
And while the rookies lean on one another, the Ravens have been relying on them this season. Seven of the 11 drafted first-year players and two undrafted free agents have gained significant playing time, including starts for left tackle Ronnie Stanley, Lewis, Young and Correa.
“I think you have to have a mix of rookies in there,” coach John Harbaugh said after Friday’s practice. “We have a big rookie class, and a lot of those guys are playing. In this case, I think it’s a good thing because it’s not like they’re playing completely out of necessity. To me, the guys who are playing are playing because they’ve earned the playing time and they’re playing well. ... Our guys are playing because they’re good enough, and we feel good about them.”
Stanley opened the year as the starting left tackle and has made a team-high six Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 4
starts there. Lewis started five games at left guard and three at left tackle before getting sidelined by a high right ankle sprain Nov. 10 against the Cleveland Browns.
Young has made five consecutive starts at cornerback and is tied with strong safety Eric Weddle for second on the team in interceptions with two. And Correa made three tackles and forced a fumble in his lone start Oct. 23 against the New York Jets.
Rookies who have not started but made contributions include Moore, who has scored two touchdowns on special teams; Dixon, who has cemented his role as the second running back behind starter Terrance West (Towson University, Northwestern High); and Judon, who ranks third on the team in sacks with three.
And there are two first-year players who were not drafted but have had an effect. Pierce has 24 tackles and two sacks, and Onwuasor is tied for second on special teams in tackles with four.
The organization has never been shy about playing rookies. Quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and punter Sam Koch have been full-time starters since their rookie seasons.
Whereas in the past when first-year players were afforded a year or two on the sideline to learn from their elders and grow into their roles, the current grace period in the league is much shorter — or nonexistent in some cases.
Less than two months after the draft, the franchise terminated the contract of left tackle Eugene Monroe, paving the way for the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Stanley to play immediately.
“Going in, especially if you want to play, you’ve got to know that there’s going to be no real learning curve and they’re really not going to give you that time to get into everything that you want to,” the sixth overall pick said. “Everything’s coming at you so fast as a rookie. From the draft to camp, it’s a lot to take in. You’ve got to be mentally strong to really take it all in.”
Several rookies said they would not have minded more time and room to develop. But they also agreed that making an impact in their first year is the culmination of years of hard work and dreams envisioned during their high school and college days.
“I feel like you’re not a competitor if you don’t want to be out there,” Judon said. “I want to be out there, so I’m going to have to have some learning on the fly and make some adjustments on the fly. But we’re out there playing, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Many of the rookies have played in 10 regular-season and four preseason games thus far, which is two games longer than the typical season in the college ranks. Dixon declared he has not yet hit the proverbial “rookie wall,” but acknowledged that the most important part of the season for the 5-5 Ravens begins with Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We do have six games left,” he said. “I am going to go out there and work hard every day. If I have a rookie wall, I am going to climb that rookie wall and keep fighting every day.”
With the season still ongoing, Harbaugh is not ready to make a full evaluation of the rookie class. But he likes what he has seen thus far.
“They’re all getting better every single day, and none of them have taken a step back,” he said. “None of them takes anything for granted.”
Rookie Tavon Young, right, tries to tackle the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant on Sunday. Young has made five consecutive starts at cornerback and has two interceptions.