OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Lamar Jackson has gotten most of the headlines, yet the former Louisville quarterback is merely one of several rookies whose contributions have helped the Baltimore Ravens move within striking distance of the AFC North title.
Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and 32nd overall pick in the draft, has won five or six since replacing veteran Joe Flacco at quarterback in mid-November. Undrafted running back Gus Edwards, right tackle Orlando Brown and tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews have also fortified a revamped offense that’s averaging 25 points per game with Jackson calling the plays.
“There are a bunch of kids out there,” 34-year-old guard Marshal Yanda said. “When I look out in the huddle and (31-year-old receiver Michael) Crabtree isn’t out there, I feel like I’m a dinosaur.”
With a victory over Cleveland (7-7-1) on Sunday, the Ravens will win the division for the first time since 2012 and end a three-year playoff drought. Baltimore (9-6) put itself in this position with a 22-10 upset over the Chargers last Saturday.
After the Ravens fell behind 13-10 in the third quarter, Jackson and Andrews connected on a 68-yard touchdown pass to put Baltimore ahead for good. Brown helped with the pass protection and Hurst ran an underneath route that helped Andrews get open.
“It was awesome. You dream of plays like that, especially as a rookie,” Andrews said Wednesday. “Lamar threw an incredible ball. Right over the linebacker, right in stride. It really made my job easy. And the blocking up front was great.”
Edwards did his part with a 92-yard rushing performance, upping his total to 578 since taking over for injured Alex Collins on the same day Jackson stepped in as a starter.
Hurst has yet to live up to his potential as the 25th overall pick, in part because he had foot surgery over the summer and got off to a slow start. But as a group, the Ravens rookies deserve high marks.
“Very talented guys, and they’ve worked really hard,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve earned their way into the starting lineup and have maintained that position by playing well. The rookie class has done a really good job.”
The 6-foot-8, 345-pound Brown played a reserve role over the first six weeks before getting his first NFL start on Oct. 21. The former Oklahoma standout has started every game since.
“He’s definitely doing really well. I’m proud of him,” Yanda said. “He’s kept his head down and keeps grinding. It hasn’t been too big or too much for him. I respect that.”
The final draft by general manager Ozzie Newsome, who will retire after the season, began with Hurst before a trade landed Jackson. Brown and Andrews followed as third-rounders before Newsome selected cornerback Anthony Averett and linebacker Kenny Young, both of whom subsequently made their mark on special teams.
Sixth-round pick Bradley Bozeman has played 13 games on the offensive line with one start.
A year ago, the Ravens needed only to beat Cincinnati in the season finale to reach the playoffs. The situation this year is eerily similar, and the hope all along has been that the newcomers would help Baltimore clear the final obstacle.
“Right away the older guys, and even us, saw we could have an impact on this team,” said Andrews, who has 30 catches for 498 yards and three scores. “They were close last year. They were one game away, and they brought us in here to win this last game.”
The rookies gathered in spring to begin the process. Three draft picks —safety DeShon Elliott, tackle Greg Senat and receiver Jaleel Scott — are on injured reserve. The rest could be playing football into February.
“We got here like May 3 and I feel like we’ve been here forever,” Brown said. “It’s been a grind.
Next year should be easier, and the hope is that the rookies will benefit from the experience.
“We aren’t playing our best football as a group. That’s still years down the road,” Brown said. “But it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to go out there and play on Sundays.”
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