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Ravens' 2015 Draft Class Needs To Step Up

April 17, 2017
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has often said NFL players make their biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. The wide-eyed rookie look is gone, and second-year players have had time to fully adjust to the NFL lifestyle, requirements and rhythm of the pro season. 

Harbaugh's point might be true in general, but there was no such jump last year for the Ravens' 2015 draft class. 

This group showed little progress during its second year, and as the Ravens look to end a two-year playoff drought, the time is now for this draft class to produce. 

The Ravens face critical needs at wide receiver, defensive line and outside linebacker. In 2015, they drafted players to address all three needs; but to this point, these players have not performed as the organization had hoped. 

To review, this was the Ravens' 2015 draft class:

1st round, No. 26 overall: WR Breshad Perriman
2nd round, No. 55 overall: TE Maxx Williams
3rd round, No. 90 overall: DT Carl Davis
4th round, No. 122 overall: OLB Za'Darius Smith
4th round, No. 125 overall: RB Buck Allen
4th round, No. 136 overall: CB Tray Walker
5th round, No. 171 overall: TE Nick Boyle
5th round, No. 176 overall: G Robert Myers
6th round, No. 204 overall: WR Darren Waller

The story of this draft class will always have a tragic subtext, as Walker died after a dirt bike accident in March 2016. 

But in the immediate aftermath of the draft, the Ravens received glowing grades from draft experts.  

"The Ravens needed new weapons in the passing game at both wide receiver and tight end, and they got them," wrote ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., who gave the Ravens an A-minus grade at the time. "Breshad Perriman could have been off the board by No. 14, and I wouldn't have blinked. … Carl Davis provides needed rotation depth on the D-line and again looks like good value. He was my No. 34 player on the Big Board, and Baltimore got him at No. 90."

Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com also gave the Ravens an A for the draft, writing, "Up and down the draft board, they landed good players."

Hindsight is 20-20, but here are some sobering facts about the Ravens' 2015 draft class:

- The first-round pick has made one start in two years
- The top three picks have all missed significant time to injury; Perriman and Davis each missed an entire season
- Through two seasons, this class has produced no established starters
- Two picks have had to serve NFL-mandated suspensions
- In two late-season games last season, four of the top five picks did not play a snap

The player who made the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2 was Perriman, but he had nowhere to go but up after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury. 

Perriman showed flashes at times, including an acrobatic, leaping catch against the Bills in the season opener for his first career reception. Yet he struggled with drops and route-running. 

Perriman's downfield speed seems well suited for quarterback Joe Flacco's cannon arm, but that number wasn't called as often as many expected. More than once last season, first with departed Marc Trestman and then later with current offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, Flacco pleaded for the team to get more aggressive with deep throws. 

Perriman finished with 33 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns.  

Harbaugh, speaking from the owners meetings in Arizona in March, made clear the Ravens need more from Perriman this year, particularly with the retirement of Steve Smith Sr. and the loss of Kamar Aiken to the Colts via free agency.

"He's fast, fast, fast. He's big, big, big," Harbaugh said. "He can track a ball downfield and go up and make a play. … We took him as the 26th pick in the draft. I also know he's very motivated, and he's working very hard to be the best he can be.

"He has to be out there making a difference for us. Period. End of story."

But at least Perriman played in all 16 games, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the 2015 draft class. 

The 2013 draft class has been widely maligned for early-round whiffs (Matt Elam and Arthur Brown), but the Ravens netted three starters later in that draft: nose tackle Brandon Williams in the third round, fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth and tackle Rick Wagner in the fifth. 

The 2015 class has yet to produce a regular starter. 

Last season, the Ravens got virtually nothing from their second and third picks in the 2015 draft, as Williams and Davis were lost to injuries. Williams played in four games without a catch before going on injured reserve with a knee injury. Davis missed the entire season. 

As a rookie, Williams made 32 catches for 268 yards -- both franchise records for a rookie tight end. He is still just 23 years old, but Williams has to carve out a spot in a crowded group that includes veterans Dennis Pitta and Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore and two others from this draft class, Boyle and Waller.

Both Boyle and Waller lost part of last season to NFL-mandated suspensions: Boyle for 10 games for a second suspension -- the first cost him the final four games of his rookie season -- and Waller for four. Waller, converted from wide receiver last offseason, ranked second among tight ends last season with 10 catches (for 85 yards). Waller also ranked second in special teams tackles with six. 

Boyle (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) is considered the best blocking tight end, and Harbaugh indicated he or Williams could be used in a hybrid-fullback type role if the team fails to replace Juszczyk. 

Davis didn't play at all last season, going on injured reserve with an ankle injury in early September. He should be back bigger, older and stronger, and with a job wide open after the Ravens traded Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Unlike Davis, Za'Darius Smith and Buck Allen both played in 2016, but both regressed from Year 1 to Year 2. 

Smith registered 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2015 but finished with one last season. He was slowed at times by an ankle injury. 

Allen, meanwhile, went from starting running back late in the Ravens' injury-marred 2015 season to fourth string last summer, falling behind Justin Forsett, Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon on the depth chart. Allen saw only fleeting action in his second season, finishing with nine carries for 34 yards.

Even though the early returns have been abysmal, there is still time for this draft class to make an impact. 

With Steve Smith gone, Perriman has a chance to establish himself as a No. 1 receiver. With Jernigan gone, Davis has a chance to win a starting job in the trenches. With Elvis Dumervil gone, Za'Darius Smith has a chance to be an impact pass rusher. With Dixon facing a four-game suspension, Allen has a chance to move back up the depth chart. With Juszczyk gone, Boyle or Williams has a chance to earn a job as a lead-blocking, pass-protecting H-back. 

It's unclear whether any or all of these players will be up to the task, but the Ravens can ill afford another lost season from this class. 

Follow Bo on Twitter @bsmolka 

Issue 232: April 2017