A year ago, outside linebacker might have been considered one of the deepest positions on the Ravens roster. With Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw starting and Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee — a Pro Bowl pass rusher and a soon-to-be expensive free agent — coming off the bench, the Ravens were able to cycle them out.
Now, with McPhee in Chicago and Suggs now out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, the position is among the most worrisome the team has.
Suggs was essentially a three-down player in 2014, playing the run and pass equally well as Upshaw stayed in on first and second downs and was replaced by Dumervil in passing downs and on third down. McPhee spelled Suggs and rushed from all over the field.
There were just three active outside linebackers Sunday against the Broncos, with Suggs, Dumervil, and Upshaw cycling in. Rookie fourth-round NFL draft pick Za’Darius Smith was inactive against Denver, but expect that to be the last time he's down this season.
Smith will be tasked with plenty as part of a three-man rotation with Upshaw and Dumervil, and it’s unclear whether he can handle it at this stage in his career. If the Ravens were to strengthen the position from within, practice squad outside linebacker Brennen Beyer is the only option. Steven Means and Zach Thompson are on injured reserve.
They Ravens could have Albert McClellan, an inside linebacker by trade, line up on the outside as he did at some points Sunday. McClellan sacked Peyton Manning in that position in the second quarter. Third-year inside linebacker Arthur Brown’s speed could play as an outside pass rusher, too, if the Ravens decide to get creative.
They may have to, since there’s not a lot available on the free agent market. Veterans John Abraham, Lance Briggs, Philip Wheeler, and Dwight Freeney headline the group of unsigned outside linebackers, though each is in at least some stage of retirement.
The Ravens have just over $4 million in salary cap space, according to Spotrac, so they can’t break the bank to entice any of these players to come back. Their best bet from the outside would be to make a depth trade in a few weeks when teams get a little more sure of their rotations and decide who on their rosters they don’t like. Pass rushers can come cheap in situations like this.
New England acquired Akeem Ayers for essentially nothing after he fell out of favor in Tennessee last year, and he was a useful piece on the Super Bowl defense and finished the year with four sacks.
So, absent a trade for some back-end diamond on someone else’s roster, or the rapid development of one of their own, what we already knew is clear: it’s going to be difficult for the Ravens to replace Terrell Suggs.