When the Ravens drafted defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in the second round, their executives and coaching staff heaped praise on the consensus All-American from Florida State for his ability to disrupt offenses.
Now the Ravens are about to find out whether what the rookie has flashed in spots will translate into increased production in a much larger role. Jernigan is expected to be the primary replacement for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata was suspended for four games without pay Thursday for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy because of an admitted positive test for Adderall.
"I really feel like the film doesn't lie," Jernigan said. "The snaps I've been able to play this year, I feel like I've been productive. Right now, I have to step into a bigger role and do it down in and down out for the entire game.
"That's all I've been wanting ever since I've been here is a shot. Playing 15, 17 snaps a game, it's tough to really get it going. Now I have an opportunity to show the world that I can actually play at this level."
What this status change will mean for the Ravens and Jernigan remains to be seen. Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, provides a unique presence because he can stack blockers, penetrate the backfield to stop the run, rush the passer, and knock down and intercept passes.
In eight games this season, Jernigan has played roughly 15 to 29 snaps per game and has a dozen tackles and two sacks. Jernigan has displayed the ability to get off blocks and rush the passer, but it's all been in spurts, not sustained action.
Jernigan was regarded as more of a fit for 4-3 defensive schemes entering the draft than the Ravens' 3-4 alignment. But the 6-foot-2, 300-pound native of Lake City, Fla., has adjusted to the Ravens' system. Jernigan's athleticism, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.97 seconds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times, has helped his transition.
"We have confidence in everybody that's on that football field and that's on our football team, that when we ask them to do a job, that they can execute at the highest level," defensive end Chris Canty said. "Timmy is no different in that regard. Obviously, he has a very special skill set. He's got a lot of talent."
Jernigan is expected to get help in a rotation that likely will include defensive linemen Lawrence Guy and DeAngelo Tyson. The Ravens also have outside linebacker Pernell McPhee available to play on the defensive line in pass-rushing situations. They could also have backup nose tackle Terrence Cody active Sunday to spell starting nose tackle Brandon Williams against the Miami Dolphins.
"I think he's gotten better every week," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Jernigan. "He's got some quickness, he's got some power. There are some things that he can do that other guys can't do. Everybody's got their own set of physical tools. His are different than a Haloti or Brandon Williams or something like that.
"I think Lawrence Guy has done a good job. The guy's really stepped in, played hard. DeAngelo Tyson, we've got plenty of guys in there to play."
Jernigan missed four games earlier this season because of arthroscopic knee surgery to repair damage to his meniscus. Since returning against the Atlanta Falcons, Jernigan has played in six consecutive games without any setbacks.
"Definitely, my knee is fine," Jernigan said. "My knee feels great. Actually, I feel better than before I hurt it. I'm feeling healthy. They've been doing a great job of keeping me fresh throughout the year. I'm ready for the moment. I know my role is going to increase. I'm ready for whatever it is."
Jernigan piled up 139 career tackles, 25 for losses, and 8.5 sacks for the Seminoles in three seasons and won a national championship last season.
Once regarded as a first-round draft choice, Jernigan fell in the draft after he had a diluted drug sample at the NFL scouting combine. Jernigan said the test resulted from dehydration and drinking too much water. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome bypassed several other players to go with Jernigan, who was signed to a four-year, $4.382 million contract that includes $2.126 million guaranteed and a $1.507 million signing bonus.
Jernigan said he feels like he was selected with a larger purpose in mind for the Ravens' defensive future. Those big-picture plans have now been accelerated because of Ngata's situation.
"I know at the end of the day that Ozzie has a plan for me," Jernigan said. "So I'm going to be all right."