Ravens benefit from production by trio of rookies

Ozzie Newsome and the Baltimore Ravens are reaping the benefits of yet another good draft.

Three players selected by Newsome in the 2009 NFL draft have become significant contributors. The play of rookies Michael Oher, Lardarius Webb and Paul Kruger have the Ravens (6-5) in the thick of the AFC wild-card hunt.

Oher has started every game at offensive tackle and Webb was a solid special teams contributor before taking over last week for injured Fabian Washington as a starting cornerback. Kruger didn’t get much action in September and October, but his interception in overtime last Sunday night against Pittsburgh was one of biggest defensive plays of Baltimore’s season.

Oher was taken with the 23rd overall pick, Kruger went 57th and Webb was No. 88. Combine those three with second-year standouts Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, and it’s no wonder the Ravens are excited about the future.

“We’ve had really good drafts the past two years, so if you look at our group out there, it’s really a young team in a lot of ways,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. “We have a great mix of veteran leadership, but there’s a lot of first, second and third-year players who are playing a lot of football for us and having an impact on games. That’s really important in this league.”

Newsome has been in charge of Baltimore’s draft since the team arrived from Cleveland before the 1996 season. Even when forced to draft late in each round because of the Ravens‘ success, he still manages to find a gem or two – or three.

After Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2001, Newsome snagged tight end Todd Heap in the subsequent draft. Last April, though the Ravens were coming off an appearance in the AFC championship game, Newsome outdid himself.

Oher has been outstanding at right tackle and held his own when forced to move to the left side for two games.

“He came in and looked good from the start,” third-year guard Ben Grubbs said. “I don’t see anything but an upside for him.”

Said Oher: “The coaches and everybody are doing a good job of getting me prepared for Sundays. I’m just doing my part, working hard and staying focused.”

Webb began the returning and covering kicks on special teams. But after Washington was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, Webb got his first NFL start and had nine tackles against the Steelers.

“Lardarius Webb, he hasn’t slowed down at all. He wants to learn so much and he’s trying to dissect it all,” said linebacker Ray Lewis, one of Newsome’s former first-round picks. “The conversations we have, he’s always trying to grab something. He plays the game with complete passion and has ability, too. Anytime you have that combination in a young kid, you put him on the field, sometimes you find a star very early.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but I just love the way he plays the game,” Lewis said. “Kruger’s the same way. He’s a very energetic guy in his own way. He’s our type of player.”

Kruger was a star linebacker at Utah, but upon arriving in Baltimore found himself stuck behind three-time Pro Bowl standout Terrell Suggs. Kruger was on the inactive list for seven of the first eight weeks, but he worked himself into the lineup Week 9 against Cleveland and has showed steady improvement heading into Monday night’s game at Green Bay.

Any lingering disappointment over his slow start was erased by his performance against Pittsburgh, when he picked off a Dennis Dixon pass and returned it 26 yards to set up the game-winning field goal in a 20-17 win.

“It was what I’ve been working for. As soon as you see that happen, it’s really an awesome thing,” Kruger said. “It was definitely awesome to be a part of the win.”

That kind of performance – and a willingness to improve – has enabled the three rookies to avoid getting ribbed by their older teammates.

“Each week I try to get better. Last week wasn’t good enough,” Webb said. “It hasn’t come to the point where they’ve seen me slacking off. I know they’re waiting for that, but I’m not going to let it happen.”

Notes: Fullback Le’Ron McClain (chest), left tackle Jared Gaither (illness), Suggs (knee) and safety Ed Reed (ankle, hip) did not practice Thursday.