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Third-year players can push the Ravens over the top

Their 2019 Draft class is Baltimore’s 2021 x-factor

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the offseason discussion in Baltimore has centered around general manager Eric DeCosta’s veteran acquisitions of WR Sammy Watkins, OL Kevin Zeitler and OT Alejandro Villanueva. A rookie class headlined by WR Rashod Bateman, EDGE Odafe Oweh and OL Ben Cleveland has generated hype, as have the potential improvements from second-year performers LB Patrick Queen, RB J.K. Dobbins and DT Justin Madubuike.

Naturally, QB Lamar Jackson and his remaining 2018 draft classmates, including TE Mark Andrews and OL Bradley Bozeman, have generated headlines as they enter the final season of their rookie contracts. And franchise cornerstones CB Marlon Humphrey, LT Ronnie Stanley, CB Jimmy Smith and DT Brandon Williams continue to set the tone.

All the while, the Ravens third-year players have largely flown under the radar. The 2019 draft class may be the group that determines whether the Ravens are able to advance to the conference championship game and beyond next season.

With the first draft selection in his capacity as final decision maker, DeCosta selected diminutive receiver WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Hollywood has yet to develop the consistency of a true alpha receiver but he has flashed the ability to rise to the occasion when the stakes are greatest. Brown has accumulated 322 receiving yards in three postseason games, including 13 first downs, 75 yards after the catch and zero drops. He accomplished these feats while shouldering the burden of serving as the only wideout opposing defenses feared. Now with respected talents Watkins and Bateman presumably demanding attention and a newfound emphasis on the passing game, Hollywood has been put in position to blossom into a coveted No. 1 receiver during his third season.

DeCosta’s next selection in 2019 was edge defender Jaylon Ferguson, whose prospect profile was the antithesis of Oweh. Ferguson entered the NFL with prolific collegiate sack production, albeit against the lower caliber of competition on Louisiana Tech’s schedule and relatively poor athletic testing measurables. After earning just 34 total defensive snaps in the final six games last season, including two playoff deactivations, it is safe to conclude the coaching staff believed they had better options. However, they may not next season following the free agent departures of OLB Matthew Judon, DE Jihad Ward and DE Yannick Ngakoue. They will likely require contributions from Ferguson as an edge setter to spell the aging OLB Pernell McPhee. Ideally, Ferguson’s bull rush can also be utilized from a down alignment in substitution packages and become an asset to the pressure by committee scheme.

The much maligned WR Miles Boykin was DeCosta’s second third-round selection in 2019. While he proved he was not ready to serve as a tertiary threat last season, Boykin still retains utility as the fifth or sixth receiver on the depth chart. Boykin should have an advantage over the limited and older James Proche for the final receiver roster spot if the Ravens prioritize diversity of skillsets. A handful of fresh legged field-stretching grabs and red zone scores, coupled with blocking and special teams contributions should make Boykin a valuable role player.

RB Justice Hill, DeCosta’s fourth-round pick, has become the forgotten man. Undrafted overachiever RB Gus Edwards and draft day surprise Dobbins have limited Hill’s touches during his first two seasons. Nonetheless, he has delivered when called upon. Notably, his five yards per carry last season would have been tied for seventh-best in the NFL if given enough carries to qualify for the leaderboard. Known as an elusive receiver coming out of Oklahoma State, Hill is a prime choice if coordinator Greg Roman is serious about involving the backs in the passing game. Combined with his skills as a special teams gunner, Hill can provide championship caliber depth with the ability to produce at a comparable level if Dobbins or Edwards miss time.

The final notable member of the 2019 draft class is a lineman who has been overlooked throughout the offseason, OL Ben Powers. A former fourth-round pick, Powers started the final nine games of the season at right guard. Bringing stability and physicality to the position, his insertion into the lineup coincided with the resurgence of Baltimore’s record setting rushing attack. Like most of his offensive teammates, he did not fare well in the frozen Buffalo playoff defeat, but it is too soon to write him off as a starting guard. In Ravens tradition, hulking rookie Cleveland will have to earn his way onto the field. Even if Powers loses the competition to start, he can assist in heavy formations or if the grueling 17-game regular season necessitates injury replacements.

In terms of overall roster talent, several recent evaluations have placed the 2021 Ravens a notch below the top tier of the league. If a few members of their 2019 draft class make the proverbial third-year leap, they can close the gap and catapult Baltimore towards Super Bowl LVI.