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Final report cards for Ravens 2023 rookie class: Zay Flowers exceeded expectations, Keaton Mitchell electrifies

Grading the inaugural seasons of the first-year pros that spent time on the 53-man roster.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens fell short of their ultimate goal of reaching the Super Bowl in 2023 but were still able to have a successful season nonetheless. While their 2023 rookie class was nowhere near as robust as the year before when they made a whopping 11 picks including six in the fourth round alone, they received meaningful contributions from those that suited up for them.

Of their six selections in last year’s draft, only four spent time on the active roster. Fifth-round cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, who was selected No. 157 overall out of Stanford, didn’t make the initial 53-man roster and was claimed off waivers by the Seattle Seahawks before he could be signed to the Ravens’ practice squad. He appeared in eight games as a rookie between three different teams, the other two being the Green Bay Packers and Washington Commanders. Seventh-round interior offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, who was selected No. 229 overall out of USC, was essentially a medical redshirt as a rookie, having spent the entire season on the Non-Football Injury list while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered a the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

The Ravens had two undrafted rookies make the final roster only to be put on injured reserve shortly thereafter. Outside linebacker Malik Hamm wasn’t activated and reverted to season-ending injured reserve after not being promoted to the 53-man roster in late December.

How did the rookies who took the field fare in their first full year of NFL action?

WR Zay Flowers: A+

Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The first-round pick out of Boston College was the third receiver taken by General Manager Eric DeCosta with his top overall selection in his first five years since taking over at the helm of the front office. Flowers looks like the prince who was promised when it comes to homegrown talent at the position. The Ravens have historically struggled to draft and develop wide receivers during the first quarter-plus century of the franchise’s existence but Flowers’ standout rookie season suggests that times are changing.

In 16 regular season games prior to sitting out the finale, Flowers broke several team records by leading the team in targets (108), receptions (77), receiving yards (858), scored six touchdowns—five receiving and one rushing, and picked up 56 rushing yards on eight attempts. In two postseason games, he recorded nine receptions on 13 targets for 156 receiving yards and touchdown.

Much like his quarterback's second career MVP campaign, more impressive than the stats he posted overall, Flowers was an electrifying, elusive, and explosive playmaker anytime he had the ball in his hands. He was lethal after the catch and consistently made the first defender miss in space before being brought down or pushed out of bounds.

2024 Outlook: Flowers quickly established himself as the Ravens’ clear-cut No. 1 receiver as a rookie and will more than likely retain that title heading into his second season, even if the Ravens bring in another notable veteran to replace Odell Beckham Jr. or use another high draft pick on the position again. While he had some costly blunders on the biggest stage in the AFC championship game, it also marked his most productive game of the season and a glimpse of what to expect in the future minus the immaturity and lack of ball security near the goal line.

ILB Trenton Simpson: C

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The third-round rookie out of Clemson played predominantly on special teams in his first year in the league with the exception of the regular season finale when he received his most extensive defensive action in the second half of that game and shined bright. Simpson made his fair share of mistakes and nice plays on the coverage and blocking units for kicks and punts but only saw a handful of defensive snaps in the fourth quarter of a few of the Ravens’ blowout wins. He missed two weeks with a concussion but in 15 games, he recorded 13 total tackles including 10 solos and two for a loss, a fumble recovery, and a quarterback hit.

His best game was in Week 18 against the Pittsburgh Steelers where he made the most of his first taste of extensive playing time of the year in an otherwise meaningless 17-10 loss. Simpson made plays all over the field and was a mainstay in the backfield with the way shot gaps and closed quickly on the quarterback and ball carriers alike, finishing with seven total tackles including six solos and two for a loss, his first career sack, and a quarterback hit.

2024 Outlook: Many saw the selection of Simpson as the writing on the wall that former Ravens first-round inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s days in Baltimore were numbered given that the team opted not to pick up his fifth-year option. Now that the fourth-year pro is coming off a truly transcendent season in which he earned Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro honors, he is as good as gone.

This pretty much forgone conclusion will open the pathway to more playing time and potentially a starting role for Simpson, who paid his dues as a willing and core special teams contributor as a rookie. If the explosively disruptive playmaking ability he displayed against the Steelers is any indication of what to expect, Simpson’s future is very bright and the insertion of him into the starting lineup would be smooth since he’d be playing alongside two-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro Roquan Smith.

EDGE Tavius Robinson: B-

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The fourth-round rookie out of Ole Miss had a solid first season and unlike Simpson, he actually got to play more defensive snaps than special teams snaps (335-244). Robinson saw the bulk of his playing time on defense in the first half of the season while third-year pro Odafe Oweh was dealing with an ankle injury both before and shortly after veteran Kyle Van Noy’s arrival in late September. He appeared in all 17 games, making his first career start in Week 4, and finished with 26 total tackles including 13 solos and two for a loss, a sack, a quarterback hit, two pressures, and one hurry.

Robinson’s role throughout the season was mainly as a rotational early down run defender who excelled at setting the edge and keeping contain. One of his best plays of the season wasn’t his first career sack but rather how he managed to corral speedy All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill for no gain on a jet sweep toss handoff where he showed off incredible lateral agility.

2024 Outlook: Since both Van Noy and fellow 10th-year veteran Jadeveon Clowney who each recorded 9-plus sacks this past season are slated to become unrestricted free agents in March, there’s a chance that neither could get brought back. If that is the case, and even if the team address the position early in the 2024 NFL Draft, there will still be plenty of snaps to go around next season given how often the Ravens historically prefer to rotate their defensive trench players on the edge as well as the interior.

Robinson will likely continue to see the bulk of his playing time moving forward on early downs as a run defender. However, he could start being used more as a situational pass rusher who moves inside in sub-packages and allows others such as David Ojabo to come onto the field to maximize their ability to apply pressure by collapsing the pocket.

OL Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu: Incomplete

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The sixth-round rookie out of Oregon spent his entire first season on the active roster but only dressed for a few games and didn’t see the field in any of them, not even on special teams or in the Week 18 finale. After being in contention with fourth-year pro John Simpson for the starting left guard spot throughout the summer and training camp, 2023 was essentially a redshirt year for Aumavae-Laulu in which he got time to develop that many pundits and evaluators believed he needed coming out of college as a prospect with impressive raw talent and movement skills but in need of technical refinement.

2024 Outlook: As is the case with most of his fellow rising sophomores, Aumavae-Laulu will have a golden opportunity to compete for a starting spot in 2024 with both Simpson and Pro Bowl veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler slated to be unrestricted free agents. With a year in the league and the Ravens offense already under his belt, he’ll likely open the offseason program as one of the contenders to earn one of those potentially vacated spots. He has experience playing on the right side of the line as well at both guard and tackle so there’s a scenario where the Ravens have their last two picks in last year’s draft starting for them as soon as this fall.

Vorhees likely would’ve been a late day two or early day three pick had he not suffered his injury setback during the pre-draft process. After the Ravens traded back into the seventh round to select him, DeCosta told reporters that the team has “every expectation that he will be playing winning football for us in 2024.”

RB Keaton Mitchell: A

NFL: NOV 26 Ravens at Chargers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The undrafted rookie out of East Carolina emerged about midway through the season and it was truly electrifying but short-lived after he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 15 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the five games prior to his injury and even in the game where he went down, Mitchell recorded at least one play of 20-plus yards for six straight weeks. It started with his incredible breakout performance in Week 9 when he gashed and shredded the Seattle Seahawks for a whopping 138 rushing yards on just nine carries that included a 40-yard touchdown and a 60-yard near-house call.

In just eight games, Mitchell racked up 396 rushing yards, which was good enough for the third most on the team, and scored two touchdowns on the ground. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry which led the team among players with 40-plus attempts by a wide margin and would’ve led the league as well had he met the minimum carries and games appeared in qualification. Before his sensational rookie campaign was cut short, Mitchell was providing the Ravens just as much juice and even more of a consistent spark than even Flowers for a stretch. He was a threat to rip off a a chunk gain whenever he touched the ball whether it was a handoff or out of the backfield on a screen, swing route, or checkdown.

While his presence wasn’t sorely missed given that the Ravens were still able to produce a pair of games of 160-plus yards on the ground after he went down including 229 in the divisional round, it was noticeable nonetheless. Without him, the Ravens lacked the same level of explosive element he brought to the rushing attack and short passing game. Having him leaking out of the backfield to the opposite side of the blitz to counter it would’ve produced a fresh set of downs more often than not.

2024 Outlook: Mitchell is one of only two running backs that the Ravens have under contract through next season as veterans Gus Edwards and Dalvin Cook and fourth-year pro J.K. Dobbins are all slated to be unrestricted free agents in March. Given his prowess as a highly proficient short-yardage and goal-line battering ram, Edwards—who led the position group with 810 rushing yards and a career-high 13 touchdowns—is the most likely of the experienced trio to be brought back.

There’s a strong chance that the Ravens will opt to draft a running back or sign another high-priority undrafted free agent at the position as they did with Mitchell last year since he suffered his injury towards the end of the year and might not be ready for a heavier workload at the onset of the 2024 season. Whenever he is healthy, expect him to be the same sparkplug he was prior to the injury.