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Ravens draft preview: Two very different edge rushers emerge as potential first-round targets

The Ravens’ highest-paid player in 2020 will probably be an edge rusher, but money buys only so much stability.

Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, designated last month with a franchise tag worth $16.3 million, has yet to sign the one-year tender or reach a long-term extension. Former second-round pick Tyus Bowser is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The versatile Jihad Ward re-signed with the Ravens this offseason, but only through 2020. Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, both defensive linemen on the wrong side of 30, are on short-term deals.

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Only outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson is under contract through at least 2021, and his playmaking potential is still uncertain.

Even if the Ravens don’t add another edge rusher through free agency — and there’s a handful of viable options still out there, from Markus Golden to Ezekiel Ansah to Pernell McPhee — they will certainly add at least one through the draft. Do they need their next Judon or Za’Darius Smith as much as they need their next C.J. Mosley or Marshal Yanda? Not yet, no. But it would be surprising if they wait to address the position next week.

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In coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense, his edge rushers, normally outside linebackers, are asked to do a little bit of everything. For now, some pass-rush production would help; the Ravens finished No. 21 in sacks last season (37) and No. 14 in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate. But with Ohio State’s Chase Young and LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson likely to be long gone when the Ravens make their first pick at No. 28 overall, here’s how seven potential first- and second-round targets stack up, why they’d fit and why they might not:

1. Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa

Why he’d fit: Despite somewhat limited playing time in 2018, Epenesa was one of the nation’s most productive defensive ends over the past two seasons, with a combined 22 sacks and 31 tackles for loss. At 6 foot 5, 275 pounds, with his heavy hands, massive wingspan (81-plus inches) and revved-up motor, Epenesa was a pass-rush bully. His burst off the edge kept offensive tackles honest. His play strength and leverage helped him walk back blockers. His arsenal of pass-rush moves — bull rush, push-pull, club — was varied and well deployed.

Epenesa played mostly as the Hawkeyes’ right defensive end, but his length and potential as an interior pass rusher would lend flexibility to the Ravens line. While Campbell and Wolfe figure to get the lion’s share of work at the three-technique alignment (lined up over a guard’s outside shoulder) in 2020, neither player’s long-term future in Baltimore is secure. Epenesa could set the edge on early downs before kicking inside and giving guards headaches.

Why he might not: Epenesa’s skill set and work rate make him a high-floor prospect, but his poor NFL scouting combine raised questions about his ceiling. He ran a 5.04-second 40-yard dash — slower than Wolfe’s 2012 mark (5.01 seconds), despite weighing 20 pounds less — and ranked as just above average for defensive linemen in the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

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Epenesa’s athleticism could make him a liability as an open-field finisher. It could also limit Martindale schematically. Epenesa rarely dropped into coverage at Iowa, and it’s easier for offenses to key on certain edge rushers if they know one’s incapable of even spying a mobile quarterback.

2. Wisconsin’s Zack Baun

Why he’d fit: At the combine, Baun said that one NFL team he’d met with had called him “ ‘the toy’ — a can-do-it-all linebacker.” Few coordinators ask more of their outside linebackers than Martindale. Baun’s senior season might as well have been a tailor-made audition. As a pass rusher, he finished with 12 sacks and the nation’s eighth-highest pressure rate among edge rushers, according to Sports Info Solutions. He won with speed, bend and a variety of pass-rush moves, from two-handed swipes to arm-overs to spin moves.

Despite Baun’s size (6-2, 238 pounds), he set the edge well and averaged about one run stop for every 10 snaps in run defense last season, according to Pro Football Focus, a standout rate among his peers. He’s also experienced in coverage for an edge rusher, with nearly 200 snaps over the past two seasons. Baun, who had an interception and broke up four passes at Wisconsin, is raw but promising as an off-ball linebacker, where he practiced at the Senior Bowl.

Why he might not: If the Ravens spend a first-round pick on Baun, who likely won’t fall out of the top 40, his rookie-year role could be limited. With Judon expected to return, Baun would have a hard time taking snaps from the team’s incumbent at weak-side outside linebacker, his most natural fit in Martindale’s defense.

Baun’s too light to challenge Jaylon Ferguson on the strong side, and his size in general is a question mark. Of PFF’s top-rated NFL edge rushers last season, only a handful weighed less than 260 pounds. The Minnesota Vikings’ Danielle Hunter (6-5, 252 pounds) is considerably longer, and the Miami Dolphins’ Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 250), a popular comparison for Baun, struggled early in his career before landing with the New England Patriots. Baun didn’t win with power as a pass rusher, and it could also limit him as a run defender.

3. Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos

Why he’d fit: Gross-Matos starred as a 4-3 defensive end for the Nittany Lions but has the tools to grow into any role in the Ravens’ scheme. As a sophomore and junior, he racked up 17½ sacks and 35 tackles for loss, production that might’ve only hinted at his full potential. The 6-5, 266-pound Gross-Matos has a longer wingspan than Epenesa and might be as physically gifted as any incoming edge rusher not named Chase Young.

He’ll enter the NFL as a more refined run defender than pass rusher, with room for improvement in both. When Gross-Matos can spring off the line and use his reach to unsettle linemen, there aren’t many repetitions he can’t win. His short-area acceleration makes him an intriguing weapon on stunts and as an interior pass rusher, where he had some success at Penn State.

Why he might not: Gross-Matos is more ball of clay than finished product. He often succeeded despite a slow get-off at the line of scrimmage last season, and he disappeared for long stretches of games. According to PFF, Gross-Matos finished with the nation’s No. 85 pressure rate, suggesting that his breakout year was not as dominant as it appeared.

To become an every-down edge rusher, he’ll have to learn how to generate more power. In the Ravens’ system, Gross-Matos’ acclimation to outside linebacker could prove most challenging in coverage, where he has almost no experience.

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4. Alabama’s Terrell Lewis

Why he might fit: The rough outlines of greatness are there with Lewis, a 6-5, 262-pound Washington native who has a first-round frame, great burst off the line of scrimmage, impressive lateral mobility and explosive traits (upper-tier combine testing in the vertical leap and broad jump).

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In 2019, his first season in three years uninterrupted by injury, Lewis had six sacks and 11½ tackles for loss. His pressure rate of 19.8% last season ranks third in the draft class among edge rushers with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps, according to PFF. As Lewis continues to develop and return to full strength, he should be able to complement his speed rushes more effectively with power moves, especially his long-arm technique.

Why he might not: Injuries limited Lewis to just 26 games over his Crimson Tide career. As a sophomore, he tore an elbow ligament and missed 10 games. The following summer, he tore his right ACL. Lewis didn’t run at the combine or do any agility drills, and his injury history could make his senior-year tape difficult to evaluate.

Lewis’ game is full of caveats. About the only thing he did consistently well at Alabama last season was execute on stunts. Lewis has the length to anchor against tackles but not always the strength. He’s explosive around the edge but struggles to convert it to power. He can chase down ball carriers in space, but only when he’s mentally engaged.

5. Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara

Why he’d fit: With his promising measurables and a productive two-season run for the Fighting Irish, Okwara profiles as a potential blue-chip pass-rush prospect, especially as an outside linebacker. The younger brother of Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara, he had the best pressure rate (19.1%) of any defender from 2018 to 2019 — higher than even Ohio State’s Young (17.6%), according to PFF. He had two strip-sacks in one game last season and blocked a field-goal attempt in another.

The 6-4, 252-pound Okwara has long arms (almost 34½ inches), great speed (an unofficial 4.6-second 40-yard dash) and the frame to pack on good weight. At Notre Dame, he could rely on his acceleration and bend to beat tackles off the edge, even without much of a reliable counter. Okwara’s toughness also kept him engaged on plays that others would have left for dead. He rarely dropped into coverage, but he showed some fluidity when he did.

Why he might not: A broken fibula ended Okwara’s senior season, but his nine games last year were somewhat disappointing (four sacks and six tackles for loss). According to PFF, he was on pace for fewer quarterback hits, hurries and run stops than in 2018, when he had a career-high eight sacks and 12½ tackles for loss. Okwara can be a predictable pass rusher, and his inconsistent pop off the snap often took away his greatest strength.

Despite posting an impressive 27 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press at the combine — the only event he was healthy enough to participate in — Okwara was not a strong run defender. Tackles washed him out of his gap, and tight ends sometimes had their way, too. Until he can reliably set the edge or show enough ability in zone coverage, Okwara will have to be a situational pass rusher.

6. Michigan’s Josh Uche

Why he might fit: There might not have been a more underused pass rusher last season than Uche, who easily led the nation with a 26.1% pressure rate, according to Sports Info Solutions. On the 206 pass-rush snaps that PFF charted, he had a team-high eight sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 25 hurries.

The 6-1, 245-pound Uche fires off the line of scrimmage, but he had his best success when blitzing inside as a stand-up linebacker in 2019. His quick-twitch get-off and hip and ankle flexibility helped him dip by blockers, and he’s able to convert speed to power with his good hands and pad level. Uche is competitive as a run defender, and his work rate helped him finish plays from the weak side. Michigan didn’t hesitate to rely on him in coverage, either, at times lining him up in the slot and asking him to cover receivers up the seam.

Why he might not: Uche has an 80-inch wingspan — 7 inches wider than he is tall — but he’s small for an edge rusher, with a lean frame that’s a liability in run defense against road-grading offensive linemen. If coaches want his playing weight closer to 260 pounds, he could lose his shot-out-of-a-cannon explosiveness, by far his best asset.

Injuries and experience are also concerns. Uche tore his meniscus in 2016 and had a stress fracture in his foot in 2017, and he wasn’t more than a rotational player in 2018. His tackling and pass-rush moves should improve with more experience, but his struggles against the Big Ten’s better lines last season are noteworthy. Against Iowa, he was tossed to the ground a few times.

7. Boise State’s Curtis Weaver

Why he’d fit: Few edge rushers enter the draft with Weaver’s track record: three straight seasons of at least 9½ sacks and 13 tackles for loss. As a redshirt sophomore in 2018, he won over 30% of his pass-rushing snaps and generated pressure on over 20% of his rushes, according to PFF. It took him just 32 games to break the Mountain West Conference record for career sacks.

What the 6-2, 265-pound Weaver lacks in top-end athleticism, he makes up for with instincts and timing. He feasted on outside rushes in particular, keeping his pads clean with well-timed swipes that gave him the space to slip past tackles and flatten his path to the quarterback. Weaver also mostly played as a stand-up rusher, a useful foundation for a move to outside linebacker.

Why he might not: Weaver dominated against schools from Group of Five conferences, but will his production translate to the NFL? After a two-sack performance against Oregon his freshman year, he had just six tackles and one sack in games the next two years against Power Five members Oklahoma State, Florida State and Washington.

Athletically, Weaver posted strong times in the combine’s agility drills, but he chose to skip the 40-yard dash. Some scouts also have flagged his body composition; his physical conditioning might have affected his motor at times last season. In coverage and against the run, Weaver’s below-average tackle radius and athleticism could be worrisome.

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Other possibilities: Florida’s Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, Utah’s Bradlee Anae, Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor, Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem, Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes

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