OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Chosen by the Ravens to begin working toward a third championship in franchise history, a collection of rookie draft picks and free agents took the practice field in Owings Mills for the first time on Friday.
But before any of these first-year players can entertain thoughts of how big their respective roles will be during the 2013 season and beyond, simple tasks such as lining up in the huddle correctly or even finding the locker room must be mastered in their first mandatory minicamp. Adjusting to the speed of an NFL practice is challenging enough, but diving headfirst into a playbook more complex than any encountered in college will be a chore players won’t master for quite some time.
It’s all about baby steps, starting with first-round safety Matt Elam and finishing with the undrafted rookies trying to gain favor with head coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the staff in their first weekend together.
“You just take a couple of minutes at a time. I know we have lunch, so that’s what I’m looking forward to right now,” said fourth-round linebacker John Simon as he laughed. “Then, we have meetings, so [I’m] not getting too ahead of yourself and just slowly getting through the day – putting your focus into everything.”
Following an offseason filled with free-agent departures, retirements, and difficult releases, the Ravens view this draft as a pivotal step in replenishing a championship team with young talent ready to play immediately, whether it be as a starter or a key reserve. This is especially true on the defensive side of the football where the Ravens lost six key contributors and already view Elam as well as second-round inside linebacker Arthur Brown as projected starters against the Denver Broncos in Week 1.
Unlike other organizations plagued with prolonged spells of losing or lukewarm success, the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII title brings instant credibility in getting rookies to buy into their message with no questions asked. Of course, general manager Ozzie Newsome and his scouts have made a point to identify high-character players with team-centric goals that take precedent over personal accolades.
Understanding the organization’s way of doing things can’t be learned overnight, but the message is clearly expressed from the moment rookies walk into the building.
“I walked into the locker room and the first thing I saw was, ‘Team. Team. Team,’” Brown said. “That was definitely comforting to me, just recognizing that it is all about the team. I come from a school that definitely focuses on a team effort, so really just seeing that from the coaching staff and the other players is definitely what I am all about.”
Competing with Cody
Third-round pick Brandon Williams admits to having a chip on his shoulder after hearing the doubts about his NFL potential coming from Division II program Missouri Southern State, but the 335-pound defensive lineman couldn’t help but smile when asked about the opportunity he’s received in Baltimore.
Newsome made no secret about his team’s need to get stronger at the nose tackle position after Terrence Cody and Ma’ake Kemoeatu struggle at the spot throughout the 2012 season. The Ravens invested free-agent money in veteran defensive ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to strengthen the defensive line but waited until the second day of the draft to identify Williams as a viable option at nose tackle.
And with Cody entering the final year of his rookie contract and failing to live up to expecations, Williams sees a golden opportunity to etch out a key role in the defensive line rotation.
“I love it. It’s great being here competing,” Williams said. “[Cody will] make me better; I’ll make him better. It’s just a team thing and a [defensive] line thing. We both can feed off of each other’s energy and play.”
Of course, with the Ravens’ extensive depth at defensive end, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata could see more time playing inside, but there’s no disputing the opportunity that Williams has to make his mark in his first professional season.
No replacing Ray
Brown has heard the comparisons to the incomparable Ray Lewis since before the Kansas State linebacker was even drafted by the Ravens as his possible replacement, but the second-round pick is taking it all in stride.
Understanding there’s no way he can put himself in the conversation with one of the greatest defensive players in league history, Brown is looking forward to learning from the many remaining veterans influenced by the future Hall of Fame linebacker as well as crossing paths with Lewis himself. Expectations will be high after the Ravens moved up six spots in the second round to take him after suffering the losses of both Lewis and free-agent departure Dannell Ellerbe this offseason.
“The way I look at it is [there’s] no replacing Ray Lewis,” Brown said. “He is still a part of this team. He has had a major impact on so many of guys that are already here. Really, I am just an addition looking to fulfill my role and be an impact player.”
Brown’s biggest competition for a starting job alongside Jameel McClain appears to be fourth-year linebacker Rolando McClain, who carries severe baggage from his days in Oakland as well as an arrest earlier this month that took place less than two weeks after he was signed to a one-year contract. His troubles coupled with Brown’s selection have led many to wonder whether the 2010 first-round pick will even make it to training camp as a member of the Ravens.
Taking the Harvard baton
In addition to answering questions about a potential competition with Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, fourth-round selection Kyle Juszczyk of Harvard has been asked about his connection with retired Ravens center Matt Birk, who attended the same Ivy League school.
Juszczyk and Birk are both represented by agent Joe Linta and kept in touch over the last month as the former learned his draft fate. In addition to clarifying the pronunciation of his name — saying it’s like “you ‘use’ a ‘check'” — the rookie fullback shared Birk’s advice in preparing him for what to expect in the locker room as a Harvard product.
“On draft day he texted me, congratulated me [and] told me he thought I’d do well,” Juszczyk said. “He apologized and said, ‘Guys in Baltimore don’t think Harvard guys are too smart anymore –- sorry about that.’”
Even in retirement, Birk’s sense of humor can still be felt in Owings Mills.
Simon on Meyer
Simon received arguably the best compliment of any of the Ravens’ 10 draft picks when Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said he would name his son after the Buckeyes defensive end after he served as a two-time captain in Columbus.
Projected to play outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 system, Simon was appreciative of his college coach’s words — even if they were uncharacteristic based on his perception of Meyer.
“He never really said it to my face, so I’ve never actually heard it, but I’ve heard other people talk about it,” Simon said. “He’s a blunt person. He tells it like it is. For him to say something like that about myself, it’s special to me and I respect the hell out of the guy. It means a lot.”