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Ravens position review: Defensive line helped stop Derrick Henry, but another overhaul is coming soon

The Ravens’ 2019 season ended with Derrick Henry running over them. Their 2020 offseason began with a commitment to keep that from happening when it mattered most.

In an overhaul of the team’s defensive line, general manager Eric DeCosta traded for Calais Campbell, signed Derek Wolfe and drafted Justin Madubuike. And when the Ravens faced the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs again, they kept Henry in check. Now, with needs elsewhere on their roster, the front office will have to weigh the value of an aging, expensive group with limited pass-rush production.

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In the seventh of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s interior defensive line situation. Next up is inside linebacker.

2020 in review

When Wolfe signed with the Ravens in March, he had high hopes for the unit: “I think we can have the best defensive line in the league.” Campbell was coming off a Pro Bowl season. Wolfe was healthy. Brandon Williams was returning to his more natural nose tackle position. Madubuike was one of the NFL draft’s top interior pass rushers. But because of injuries and COVID-19, they rarely played together; the four missed a combined 15 games in 2020.

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The unit’s production was a mixed bag. As pass rushers, Campbell and Wolfe posted career lows in sacks, and Madubuike flashed his potential. Against the run, the Ravens finished second in the NFL in stopping short-yardage “power” opportunities, according to Football Outsiders, but just No. 22 in stuffed rate, the percentage of runs in which the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Overall, the Ravens’ line play improved in both phases, though it rarely dominated.

Depth chart

Brandon Williams

Skinny: In the four games Williams missed or was injured in — one win and three losses — the Ravens allowed a combined 608 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry. In the 13 others, they gave up just 4.2 yards per carry. Williams finished the season with no sacks and four quarterback pressures, according to Pro-Football-Reference, as well as 33 tackles (3 ½ for loss).

Contract status: Williams, who turns 32 this month, is entering the final year of his contract extension. He has a salary cap hit of $14.4 million, with a $7.5 million base salary.

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Calais Campbell

Skinny: Campbell’s consecutive-games streak ended at 98 after suffering a calf injury in Week 9. The 6-foot-8 defensive end played in just 12 games overall, the fewest of his career, and was fully healthy for only about half the season, posting 28 tackles (six for loss). A widely respected team leader, he had four sacks and 13 pressures after posting 6 ½ and 33 in 2019, respectively, with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Contract status: Campbell, 34, has a $15 million cap hit in 2021, the second year of a two-year, $25 million contract. His base salary is set to double from $5 million to $10 million.

Derek Wolfe

Skinny: Wolfe had just one sack and six pressures in 14 games, down from seven and 18 in 2019, respectively. Still, the defensive end posted the highest run-defense grade for a Ravens lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, and finished with 51 tackles (7 ½ for loss).

Contract status: Wolfe, who turns 31 this month, is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Justin Madubuike

Skinny: The third-round pick sat out the season’s first four weeks with a knee injury and missed another two games after testing positive for COVID-19. But by season’s end, Madubuike was maybe the Ravens’ most disruptive lineman, even standing out against the Cleveland Browns’ talented line. He finished 2020 with a sack, two pressures and 19 tackles (2 ½ for loss).

Contract status: Madubuike is entering the second year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $1.1 million in 2021.

Justin Ellis

Skinny: The backup nose tackle appeared in 13 games and started three in Williams’ absence, Ellis’ most since 2017. He had 17 tackles and earned praise from coach John Harbaugh throughout the season.

Contract status: Ellis, 30, is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Broderick Washington

Skinny: The fifth-round pick was a healthy scratch in eight games and averaged 20.1 defensive snaps in his eight appearances. Washington finished with two tackles and especially struggled in run defense, according to PFF.

Contract status: Washington is entering the second year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a $780,000 base salary in 2021.

Offseason questions

1. How many veterans return?

The Ravens’ uncertainty at edge rusher is due to hit the defensive line position sooner or later. It’s not a young group, and those under contract aren’t especially cheap. Campbell and Williams are entering their 14th and ninth season, respectively, and 300-plus-pound players don’t tend to age like Tom Brady. In November, Wolfe said he sometimes wakes up on game days in so much pain that “I can’t even put my pants on.”

Even with four pending free agents at the position, it’s two potential 2022 free agents who are most intriguing. Campbell and Williams have a combined cap hit of nearly $30 million in 2021, a hefty price tag for a run-stopping tackle and an end who had sacks in just two games last season. The Ravens would save $10 million by cutting Campbell, a recent Pro Bowl selection, and $7.5 million by releasing Williams, who’s spent his whole career in Baltimore.

Neither move appears likely. Despite modern offensive trends, general manager Eric DeCosta said last month that the Ravens want to remain true to their reputation as an “imposing,” “physical” team. “You can’t be a great passing team and have a poor run defense, because then you won’t have a chance to pass the ball,” he said. “You won’t have a chance to run enough plays.”

2. Will the interior pass rush step up?

Under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens haven’t often relied on simple four-man rushes to generate pressure. But if they want to slow quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in the AFC, it’d help to have that option. And to get the job done, they’ll need more than high-end edge rushers and athletic linebackers.

Campbell and Wolfe weren’t able to replicate the success they had with stunts and twists in previous stops, but both have good pass-rush skill sets. Madubuike should be even better with a full offseason program. The versatile Jihad Ward impressed as a situational pass rusher but, like Wolfe, is a pending free agent. Washington projects more as a run-stopping lineman. Martindale can get by without a line like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Ravens need more pass-rush pop in 2021.

3. How will a coaching change affect the line’s play?

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With former Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen set to be named the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator, there’s an old face in a new place in Owings Mills. Anthony Weaver, who started his NFL career as a Ravens defensive end, has taken over for Cullen and will serve as the unit’s run game coordinator. Harbaugh said Weaver understands “the standard to which Baltimore defense is held.”

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The 40-year-old comes over from Houston, where he served as defensive coordinator last season. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has called Weaver an “incredible” coach. “I think that he has a great mixture of knowledge of the game, experience, but also personality to be able to handle the players in the room, to be able to inject some fun and excitement into meetings, practice and everything, all while bringing the knowledge necessary to run a good defense,” he said last year.

Possible additions

If the Ravens bring back Campbell and Williams, there’s probably not enough space to add another big-time defensive lineman. This isn’t a deep free-agent class, but it has a clear headliner — end Leonard Williams, coming off an 11 ½-sack season — and a handful of solid veterans. Tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Ndamukong Suh and end Shelby Harris could all contribute for a playoff contender.

In the draft, Alabama tackle Christian Barmore, considered a mid-first-round prospect, would probably be too good to pass on at No. 27. LSU’s Tyler Shelvin, at 6 foot 3, 346 pounds, is a potential Day 2 pick and successor to Williams. Southern California’s Jay Tufele is an athletic three-technique lineman (lined up outside a guard’s shoulder) who projects as a mid-round player.

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