Defensive Rookies Showing Early Returns In Baltimore

Defensive Rookies Showing Early Returns In Baltimore

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Sep 1, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (78) celebrates his fumble recovery for a touchdown with teammates Matt Judon (91) and Willie Henry (69) during the second quarter of their game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens’ 2016 NFL Draft class has paid immediate dividends on a team that is fighting for its first division title since 2012.  The Ravens came away with 11 draft picks, and already five rookies have made starts this season.

Of those 11 picks, five came from the fourth round, and four of those players have already carved out important roles on this squad.  Along with the 11 draftees comes defensive tackle Michael Pierce, an undrafted player from Samford College.

Two rookies have started on Baltimore’s defense this year, and others have made solid contributions as well.

Matt Judon, Tavon Young, Kamalei Correa, Michael Pierce, Maurice Canady, and Patrick Onwuasor have all played at some point this season.

Canady played sparingly at cornerback until being placed on Injured Reserve after Week Four.  Undrafted inside linebacker Onwuasor made headlines during the offseason with huge hits during training camp.  He started the season on the practice squad, but was activated to the 53-man roster before Week Six.  He has appeared at times (3 tackles in three games played), but needs more time to develop.

Judon, Young, Pierce, and Correa have had more prominent roles on the league’s No. 2 defense.

Judon, last year’s college leader in sacks, is tied for 4th among rookies this season with 3 sacks.  He’s played in six games total, but has made more of an impact lately as Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have been injured.  All three of his sacks have come in the last two games.  Judon has made strides in run defense as well, and is proving the NFL is not too big for the small-school stud.

Young started the season buried on the depth chart behind veterans Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, and Jerraud Powers.  He has jumped both Wright and Powers, and is now the starter alongside Jimmy Smith.  Some even say the starting duo is the best the Ravens have had in years.  Young is one of two rookies in the NFL with more than 1 interception with 2 picks of his own.  He has shown a great ability to tackle in one-on-one situations in space despite owning a 5’9” stature.  The secondary is much more well-rounded with the emergence of Tavon Young this season.

This year’s biggest surprise of the rookie flock, Michael Pierce, has carved a role alongside underrated Nose Tackle Brandon Williams.  The Pierce-Williams wall has helped the defense rank 2nd in run defense allowing only 76.1 yards/game.  If the Ravens can (and they should) lock up Brandon Williams long-term, these two could lead a ferocious run defense for years to come.  Pierce has also gotten to the quarterback in his situational role, bringing in 2 sacks already in his young career. 

Correa, the highest drafted defensive rookie of the bunch (second round), has flashed big-play potential.  Baltimore drafted him as a project, and he has shown that with proper coaching he can excel in the NFL.  He made his initial impact on special teams, which is a good indication for a Baltimore rookie who can’t find the field early in their careers.  See: Zachary OrrAlbert McClellan.  Correa has made two memorable plays on the defense this year.  One was a potential pick-six in Week Three in which he read Blake Bortles’ eyes and jumped in front of the ball.  He dropped the pass (mental lapse), but showed the ability to read a play in coverage.  The other was in Week Seven, in which he knocked the ball out of Matt Forte’s hands while making a goal-line stand.  Correa can develop into a well-rounded linebacker than can play any position on Baltimore’s 3-4 defense.

The Ravens have rookies contributing on each level of the defense this season.  They’re gaining meaningful experience early in their careers, and will grow and develop together.

Along with those who have played this season are defensive linemen Willie Henry and Bronson Kaufusi.  Kaufusi, a third rounder, broke his ankle after showing promise early in training camp and is on Injured Reserve.  Henry, a fourth round selection, has been a healthy scratch most of the season.  With time Baltimore believes they can turn both linemen into contributors.

Baltimore has implemented young talent with veteran leadership this year, and it is proving a success.  The No. 2 defense is winning games and turning the ball over, something the 2015 version could not do.  This unit is carrying Baltimore just like it did in the early 2000s.  If the Ravens want to win the AFC North, it starts with their young, talented defense.