Baltimore Ravens

With 2019 roster uncertain, next generation of Ravens defensive stars prepares to take the lead

If it were up to Matthew Judon, nothing would change. The Ravens would re-sign his linebacking pals, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, and they’d take another shot at leading the NFL in total defense with “the whole shebada back.”

But the gifted young pass rusher understands such continuity cannot be counted on in the line of work he’s chosen. He knows change — in the form of free-agent departures, cost-cutting moves and retirements — could blow through the Ravens’ locker room, and especially through the team’s fierce, versatile defense.


“It’s never going to be the same,” Judon said as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers the day after a season-ending playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. “That’s how this game works.”

What he did not add is that he and a band of other young defensive stars will be expected to carry the Ravens into their next era, just as Suggs and Mosley once took the reins from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.


"I think we just set a standard — reset the standard, I should say,” said defensive tackle Michael Pierce, another key piece of the young defensive core. “Obviously, we saw Ed Reed and those guys at the game, and I think we did them proud. That's something to move forward and work on and continue to work to be the No. 1 defense again next year.”

For all the excitement generated by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, stellar defense carried the Ravens down the stretch and into the playoffs. They allowed the fewest yards and second-fewest points of any team in the league and held fast against a parade of the finest quarterbacks in the pass-happy modern game.

They did it not with a Khalil Mack- or Aaron Donald-level superstar but with a deep reservoir of good players. You never knew who would be the team’s defensive Most Valuable Player or which aspect of the defense would step forward in a given week. One game, it might be a terrifying pass rush spearheaded by Za’Darius Smith. The next, it might be air-tight coverage exemplified by Marlon Humphrey.

Defense has been intrinsic to the soul of the Ravens for two decades, and 2018 will go down as a proud year in that legacy. But is such excellence guaranteed for 2019?

It’s daunting to consider the talents the Ravens could lose this offseason. Start with the control centers of the defense, Mosley in the middle and safety Eric Weddle on the back end. Mosley is a free agent who will command significant money after he made his fourth Pro Bowl in five years. He could re-sign with the Ravens and become a long-term centerpiece, but he’ll be nearly as attractive to other teams. Weddle, who also made the Pro Bowl, has said he’ll retire if the Ravens don’t want to pay $6.5 million in salary for the last year of his deal.

Then you move to the pass rush, where Smith, coming off his best season, and Suggs, one of the greatest players in franchise history, are free agents. So is run-stuffing defensive end Brent Urban.

Finally, you look at the secondary, where the Ravens could save $9.5 million by cutting their longtime No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith or $5 million by moving on from durable veteran Brandon Carr.

All of these players were integral to the team’s success this season, and none of them are guaranteed to be around when the Ravens start training camp this summer.


There are reasons, however, to be excited about the next generation.

“I feel like everybody on our defense is a main guy if everybody plays up to their potential,” weak-side linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said.

The 26-year-old Onwuasor has authored one of the most remarkable stories on the team, evolving from a high school wide receiver in California to an All-America free safety at Portland State to an NFL linebacker whose production belies his 6-foot, 227-pound frame. As recently as October, the man teammates call “Peanut” seemed to be losing his starting job to rookie Kenny Young. By the end of the season, he was perhaps the Ravens’ best player in their crucial Week 16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers and again in their season-ending playoff loss to the same Chargers.

Given his size, Onwuasor might never be the ideal player to fight through blockers in the middle of the field. But he makes up for it with his flexibility in coverage and his surprising instincts as a pass rusher. He’s a restricted free agent, and the Ravens could offer a second-round tender to dissuade other teams from pursuing him.

On the edge, meanwhile, fellow third-year linebacker Judon recovered from a slow start to produce a string of eye-popping stat lines down the stretch. He closed with two tackles for loss and five quarterback hits in the loss to the Chargers. Before that, he hit Patrick Mahomes five times in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and delivered sacks on three straight plays to help clinch a win over the Oakland Raiders.

At age 26, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound Judon continues to strive for greater consistency, but he tantalizes with his combination of pass-rushing skills and ability to play effectively in space. Judon could also become a long-term leader for the franchise given his outspokenness on the field and his commitment to social justice off of it.


On the interior, the Ravens will likely carry forward with their immovable duo of Brandon Williams and Pierce. After six seasons, Williams is officially a veteran, and he remained a top-25 run defender among interior linemen in 2018, according to the scouting website Pro Football Focus. But those same grades rated Pierce a more effective player against the run and the pass in his third season since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Samford. Like Onwuasor, he’s a restricted free agent, and the Ravens will likely make every effort to keep him.

The 340-pound Pierce and the 336-pound Williams help each other by sharing the workload inside. And they’ll be further aided by the return of defensive tackle Willie Henry, who was a breakout player in 2017 only to lose much of his 2018 season to a back injury. The ever-cheerful Henry was in the locker room on cleanout day, asking everyone to sign his team photo.

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At safety, hard-hitting Tony Jefferson will turn 27 later this month and still has two years left on his deal, though he’s another player who could be cut to clear cap space.

At cornerback, the 22-year-old Humphrey was voted team MVP this season (an honor he declined to accept), and the Ravens fully expect him to continue developing into one of the best young defensive players in the sport. Pro Football Focus gave Humphrey a top-10 coverage grade among all cornerbacks this season, a significant step up from his promising play as a rookie.

Humphrey said he’ll devote his offseason to further polishing, but he refused to dub himself a future leader of the defense. “A leader is what other people think of you,” he said. “I don’t know if you can really say, ‘I’m going to be a leader.’ ”

He did express confidence in the team’s young players as they move toward filling more substantial roles. “Whatever pieces fall, they’ll be able to be replaced,” Humphrey said.


Change might be a theme over the next few months, and there are plenty of questions to answer. Who would call the signals if Mosley and Weddle are gone? Who would help Judon chase opposing quarterbacks if Smith and Suggs are playing in other cities? But with young standouts at all three levels of their defense, the Ravens believe they’d rebuild from a position of strength.

The 34-year-old Weddle predicted continued excellence, whether he’s around or not.

“It’s not about the selfish desires that you want as an individual. It’s about the team,” he said. “That’s what has made this group so special. I think no matter what happens, that will be who the Ravens are and continue to be, and that’s exciting … to see how we’ve grown for the last three years, and where this team is going to go. It’s a great foundation that we’ve built here.”