Drafting and developing young players is the lifeblood of any successful NFL team, and there is no question the Ravens have a very good track record of not only landing good players with their first-round picks, but also unearthing hidden gems in the later rounds and in free agency.
That's a credit to general manager Ozzie Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, director of pro personnel Vince Newsome, and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, but it's also a credit to the Ravens coaching staff. The 2011 team obviously still has a veteran core of leaders, but Baltimore has also managed to inject a lot of youth into their squad this year while still winning football games. Asked about that process this week, John Harbaugh described it a bit like nudging a baby bird out of the nest, hoping they'll take flight instead of crashing to the ground.
"You throw them in there, you push them out there," Harbaugh said of his younger players. "We spend a lot of time teaching. We have a big emphasis on developing our players. We keep guys, as much as we can, in extra meeting time and practices, and we try to develop every guy on our roster. We've got 53 guys plus eight [on the practice squad]. We try to coach every guy who comes through here as much as we can, because you just never know who is going to develop into a really good player."
With so many young players playing important roles this year, The Baltimore Sun decided to take a look at the Ravens' first- and second-year players acquired in the draft or through free agency and evaluate their long-term potential.
Defensive tackle, 2nd round, 2010
So far: Cody was a dominant defensive tackle in college, truly an unblockable wrecking ball at times, but his fitness caused his draft stock to slip, and he wasn't much of a factor in his rookie season. But in this second year in the NFL, he's slowly blossomed into a solid starter with the potential to be even better.
In the future: If the Ravens coaching staff can continue to mold him and keep him in the weight room and on the treadmill, he and Haloti Ngata will anchor the defense for years to come.
Quotable: "I understand how much you have to take care of your body during the season, and how much time you have to spend watching film. You've got to make a commitment to everything and stay with it the whole season. You learn a ton just by watching the veterans. You start to see the things they see."
Tight end, 3rd round, 2010
So far: He didn't play much as a rookie, but Dickson has shown signs of becoming a real threat down the field. His hands have been somewhat inconsistent, and to become an elite player, he probably needs to learn to maintain his focus a bit more. But athletically he has all the right tools to be very good.
In the future: Just needs more reps. Watching him run past Troy Polamalu in Week 1 for a touchdown was a flash of his potential.
Quotable: "The NFL is so much more mental than college. When you're on the field, you don't want to be thinking about stuff. The first year, all you can think about is learning the playbook. And it's moving at such a fast pace, you think, 'I'm never going to learn this.' But from year one to year two, the game slows down tremendously."
Wide receiver, 4th round, 2011
So far: Doss showed good hands during the preseason when he made it into games, but he hasn't been able to climb the depth chart during the regular season. He's been active for just four games. Fans are frustrated he hasn't seen more time, but Doss doesn't seem to be. He knows he's still learning a lot.
In the future: A year in the weight room would help him get stronger and help him handle the physical pounding of the NFL. Still has potential to be a decent No. 3 receiver, based on his great hands alone, but that's probably his ceiling.
Quotable: "Obviously some stuff is out of my control. So I just approach it like I'm going to better myself every day going against a great defense [in practice]. They coaches have told me to just keep doing what I've been doing. They haven't told me anything specific I can do. We have a talented group of receivers and I'm still learning a lot from them."
Tight end, 4th round, 2010
So far: As a rookie, Pitta had almost no role on the team. When the Ravens needed someone to spell Todd Heap, they went to Dickson, especially if they were trying to throw the ball. But Pitta has been one of the pleasant surprises on the Ravens this year, especially of late. He and Joe Flacco seem to be developing a real chemistry, and he's shown he can go up and catch passes in traffic because he has such good hands.
In the future: He looks like he might be Flacco's security blanket for years to come, the role Todd Heap played early in Flacco's career.