Mike Preston: Ravens rookies setting good tone for playoff push and beyond | COMMENTARY

Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun

If there was ever a good year for a rookie class to contribute immediately, then the Ravens had perfect timing in 2020.

In the team’s brief 25-year history in Baltimore, no class has had more immediate impact than the 10 rookies the Ravens selected in late April. The classes in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2018 were comparable. The first class in 1996 was maybe the best because the top two players — offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis — became Hall of Famers.

But so far this season, the rookie class has contributed two starters on offense in running back J.K. Dobbins (second round) and offensive guard Tyre Phillips (third), two as return specialists in Devin Duvernay (third) and James Proche (sixth), and two on defense in linebackers Patrick Queen (first) and Malik Harrison (third).

Rookies Justin Madubuike (third) and Broderick Washington (fifth) rotate regularly on the defensive line while Madubuike might end up being the best player in the class.

Yes, Madubuike could become beast-like.

“A lot of those guys who’ve played, we felt like it was going to be a good class coming in,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We really didn’t know what the impact would be on their development with the new situation. But they’ve done great. They’ve been all-in. They’re just a bunch of guys who love football and want to contribute. They’ve forced their way in there, and we’ve needed them to do that. So it’s very impressive. They’ve made their share of rookie mistakes, and we get on them about it, but they’re going strong. They’re going strong as ever right now, and I’m really proud of those guys.”

The current class, combined with the strong group in 2018, solidifies the base or nucleus of the team for years to come. The Ravens have had other strong groups. In 2006, they had four rookies in the starting lineup with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, guard-center Chris Chester, safety Dawan Landry and punter Sam Koch.

A year later they had three rookies who started — guards Ben Grubbs, Marshal Yanda and fullback Le’Ron McClain — and they had a similar stellar trio of rookies in 2011 with cornerback Jimmy Smith, wide receiver Torrey Smith and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.

2018 was better than the previous years with tight ends Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews, offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and quarterback Lamar Jackson. This season was even better because most of the prognosticators knew there would be interruptions in the schedule because of COVID-19 concerns.

Few, though, knew how the rookies would play because there were no minicamps or preseason games. Rookies had to learn on the fly, and the Ravens have still won.

They have found their running backs of the future in Dobbins (110 carries, 568 yards) and third-year player Gus Edwards (117, 578). With Phillips at right guard or tackle, the Ravens have a relatively young offensive line for the future in tackles Ronnie Stanley and Brown; guards Bradley Bozeman and Ben Powers; and center Patrick Mekari. There are still questions about the unit’s pass-blocking abilities, especially when trailing, but at least there is a foundation.

The key for this rookie class, like any other, is a strong offseason in the weight room. Players make most of their progress from the first to second years, and it’s not just because they have adjusted to the speed of the game or been in the same system for two years.

They just get bigger and stronger. In college, there are restrictions on how many hours a player can train on campus, but there are no limitations for pro players. As rookies, Ogden was as lean as an NBA power forward and Lewis looked like he weighed only 220 pounds. By the following season, they had added the necessary bulk.

Phillips needs to tighten up some baby fat, but he has good athletic ability. Both Queen (98 tackles) and Harrison (39) have to add some strength to be able to shed blocks. Both run extremely well, and Queen has good instincts. Harrison plays high, but that can be corrected with more practices and better technique.

It’s hard to understand how Madubuike lasted until the third round. Because of his strength, quickness and ability to pursue, he should be a dominant player in the near future.

As for special teams, the Ravens didn’t have any top return specialists heading into August training camp, but Duvernay have stepped in capably. Duvernay is averaging 28.4 yards a kickoff return and returned one 93 yards for a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs. Proche is sure-handed, steady and averaging 8.6 yards on 23 punt returns, but the Ravens could use more from him if they make it into the postseason.

At least for now, both are dependable, and the Ravens haven’t had to use any starters at those positions.

Overall, Harbaugh and the front office are pleased with what has transpired with their rookie class in 2020. This group has not only set a good tone for now, but established a stronger foundation for the future.