"Everybody on the D-Line is really young except for Brandon [Williams], and we’re all eager to make a name for ourselves, make a statement," said Michael Pierce when asked about the young on defense. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens still have about three weeks before they have to pare down to a 53-man roster, but even a cursory look at the defensive players on the field in the fourth quarter of Thursday's preseason opener shows how difficult those decisions could become.
As the Ravens were putting the finishing touches on a 23-3 victory over the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium, their defense featured outside linebacker Tim Williams, a rookie third-round pick; defensive tackles Carl Davis and Willie Henry, third and fourth-round selections in 2015 and 2016 respectively; defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, a third-round pick in 2016; and cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Trevin Wade, who both have starting NFL experience.
The fourth quarter of preseason openers is typically the time where undrafted free agents and back-end players on a 90-man roster get an opportunity to audition for jobs. The Ravens had a few players on the field that fit that criterion, but otherwise, their defensive depth at certain spots was on full display against the Redskins.
"I think we have a lot of depth," said Michael Pierce, a little known undrafted free agent at this time last year who is now the Ravens' starting nose tackle. "We have a lot of young guys and everybody is hungry. That's the most important thing. We're eager to make a statement for this defense and for this team. We started off fast and that's what we plan to do the whole year."
The majority of the Ravens' starting defense was on the field for two full series against the Redskins' starting offense. On those two drives, Kirk Cousins and the Redskins didn't get a first down and they netted a negative one yard of total offense.
That defensive dominance continued for the Ravens long after players like rush linebacker Terrell Suggs and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson put on baseball caps and went to the sideline for good.
"The young guys were balling," Jefferson said. "They came up, they showed up and they kept them out of the end zone."
They did more than that. Cornerback Jaylen Hill, an undrafted free agent out of Jacksonville State who has been one of the summer's biggest surprises for the Ravens, intercepted Colt McCoy. Weak-side linebacker Patrick Onwuasor appeared to force another turnover, but the fumble was reversed by an official review, and ruled an incompletion.
Rookie second-round linebacker Tyus Bowser was all over the field and finished with three tackles and a quarterback hit that led to Hill's interception. Kaufusi, who didn't play in the preseason as a rookie last year because he broke his ankle early in camp, had one sack and barely missed two others.
"I love the competition. I love being able to go out there and compete with everyone," Kaufusi said. "I think we all rise together. Every day is an opportunity to really push each other and improve."
Through two-plus weeks of training camp, none of the position battles for starting spots on the defensive side of the ball have really materialized. Brent Urban, who had a team-leading four tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles against the Redskins, seemingly has the five-technique defensive end spot locked up. Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon are expected to start on the outside with Brandon Williams and Pierce on the inside.
Kamalei Correa is the clear favorite over Onwuasor to start alongside C.J. Mosley at weak-side linebacker. The only real question in the secondary is who will play the nickel corner spot because the Ravens are set at outside corner with Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr and at safety with Weddle and Jefferson.
While most of the starting spots in defense appear to be set, there are plenty of jobs at stake, which is what made who was on the field in the fourth quarter Thursday night so noteworthy. The Ravens have eight defensive linemen and they like them all. It's by far their deepest and youngest position group.
However, will they have enough room to keep Henry, Davis and impressive undrafted rookie Patrick Ricard, along with Kaufusi and rookie third-round pick Chris Wormley? The answer is probably no.
"For me, I just really worry about myself and really just try and get better for the team," Kaufusi said. "We all have great players and if we all continue to get better, it will all work out in the end.
When it all comes together, it's fun to watch and it's fun to be part of."
The Ravens also go five deep at outside linebacker with Suggs, Judon, Bowser, Williams and Za'Darius Smith. Keeping them all, especially when special teams ace Albert McClellan also has extensive experience on the outside, could leave them vulnerable at other positions.
Then, there's the cornerback spot, where the Ravens lost Tavon Young and Maurice Canady, but they still have other young corners they like behind rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, whose return to practice from a leg injury appears imminent. Robertson Daniel and Sheldon Price return from last year. The play of Hill and the recent acquisition of Wade could make it difficult for Boykin to make the 53-man roster.
"I'm just doing all that I can do. If that is being out there on defense, if that is being out there on special teams – anything I can do to help the team out," Hill said. "It is on my mind, and it is in the back of my head, but I am just doing what I can control. What I can control is my effort, my attitude and how I come into the day. That is what I am focused on."
Each time one of the Ravens' young defenders made a play, the team's defensive leaders sprung off the sideline to celebrate
"I really like them," Suggs said of his young defensive teammates. "It seems like we are a young and fast defense, and that is really good. That's how you're going to be good in this league – to have a young, fast, healthy defense. They looked good, but it's only the first preseason game, and we all need to improve."