For an organization that prides itself on its scouting and player development, the Ravens outdid themselves at inside linebacker last season.
Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, two midseason pickups who helped fortify the middle of the defense, were undrafted. Patrick Onwuasor, who had an up-and-down 2019, was undrafted. Special teams contributor Chris Board? Undrafted. Rookie Otaro Alaka? An undrafted free agent. There was maybe no positional group on the team with less pedigree.
That will change soon, out of necessity more than anything. The Ravens will draft an inside linebacker, and probably two, in this month’s draft. With the departures of Bynes and Onwuasor in free agency, only Fort (11 career starts), Board (78 career defensive snaps) and Alaka (no NFL appearances) remain. It is by far the weakest link on a defense dotted with potential Pro Bowl players.
The Ravens’ challenge entering the draft is twofold. First, they must figure out what kind of inside linebacker they need in their defense. Oftentimes last season, they lined up on obvious passing downs without one, instead relying on safety Chuck Clark as a dime linebacker. With no C.J. Mosley available, coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s exotic schemes filled the box with every player at his disposal.
Equally important is figuring out how to get that high-impact linebacker. It could be as simple as waiting. When the first round reaches the Ravens’ No. 28 overall pick, it’s possible that both LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, the draft’s top two prospects at the position after Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, could still be on the board. With nine picks overall, general manager Eric DeCosta has the draft capital to move up. If the Ravens’ draft board falls their way, he might even trade down.
No decision might be harder than the one with the fewest options: Queen or Murray? One might be the better prospect; the other might be the better long-term fit. Here’s how the Ravens’ best options at inside linebacker stack up, why they’d fit and why they might not.
1. LSU’s Patrick Queen
Why he’d fit: Queen, who capped a breakout junior season with defensive Most Valuable Player honors in the Tigers’ College Football Playoff championship, looks and plays nothing like Ray Lewis and Mosley, the only inside linebackers taken in the first round in the Ravens’ draft history.
At a safety-sized 6 feet, 229 pounds, Queen profiles as a new-age prospect. With a 4.5-second 40-yard dash (fourth fastest among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine) and 125-inch broad jump (eighth best at the position), he compares physically to the Minnesota Vikings’ Eric Kendricks, a first-team All-Pro selection who played every defensive snap in nine games last season.
Queen has similar three-down potential. Despite not starting until LSU’s fourth game last season, he finished the year third on the team with 85 total tackles, including 12 for loss, along with three sacks and an interception. Over the Tigers’ final four games, including the Southeastern Conference championship and their two CFB matchups, Queen had seven tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.
On a Ravens defense that embraces positional flexibility, Queen could be a centerpiece. In coverage, he’s shown the skills to carry wide receivers into deep zones, blanket running backs coming out of the backfield and spy on mobile quarterbacks. (Hello, Joe Burrow?) As a blitzer, he has the acceleration, change of direction and tenacity to puncture pockets.
Even in run defense, where Queen would be most vulnerable at the next level, he plays with the intelligence, lateral quickness and technique to stay a half-step ahead of onrushing linemen.
Why he might not: The Ravens’ historic run ended in part because their veteran defense couldn’t contain a bulldozer of a running back. If they get a rematch with the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry this season, or any opponent with a power-running game, would an undersized rookie linebacker really be part of the solution?
Even against more conventional offenses, there are questions of fit with Queen. At LSU last year, he played almost exclusively as a weak-side inside linebacker — the position the Ravens’ most experienced returner, Fort, is best suited for. Could Queen, who won’t turn 21 until August, grow into a middle linebacker? There’s room to fill out, but too much added bulk will do more harm than good.
Queen’s most glaring weaknesses — his play strength and inconsistent tackling — will need to be addressed before he becomes an every-down linebacker. If handling high-end SEC talent was difficult at times, just wait until the Kansas City Chiefs come to town.
2. Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray
Why he’d fit: The 6-2, 241-pound Murray is 2 inches taller and 12 pounds heavier than Queen, and still they’re peers athletically. He ranked among the combine’s top eight linebacker prospects in the 40-yard dash (4.52 seconds), bench press (21 repetitions of 225 pounds), vertical jump (38 inches) and broad jump (129 inches).
He’s been more productive than Queen, too. Over three years and 42 starts for the Sooners, Murray became the Big 12’s Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Football Bowl Subdivision’s third-leading tackler and a third-team All-American. While his tackle production fell last season, Murray still finished with a career-high 17 tackles for loss, including four sacks.
With his sideline-to-sideline speed, high motor and thumping physicality, Murray put together one of the nation’s most impressive 2019 highlight reels. In the open field, he brought down wide receivers on clothesline tackles. He ducked past linemen and warded off tight ends to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He even beat a Texas Tech left tackle on an outside speed rush for a sack.
In the Ravens defense, playing behind linemen Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, Murray could be a downhill force at middle linebacker. His sturdy frame — Murray’s already bigger than Lewis and Mosley were coming into the draft — makes him a better second-level fit with Fort and Clark than Queen.
Murray’s greatest asset, and possible trump card, might be his character. He was named a team captain at Oklahoma as a true sophomore. When he helped resuscitate a woman after a July car crash, Murray’s father, a preacher, didn’t hear about the good deed until two weeks later. At the combine, Murray told reporters he was studying five to six hours of film every day. That’s the kind of dedication that can turn a weakness into a strength.
Why he might not: The NFL’s most popular personnel grouping features three wide receivers and a tight end. Almost half the league’s teams passed more than 60% of the time last season. If a team wants a linebacker in the first round, it had better be sure he can play every down — even third-and-long.
Murray’s value is unclear because so is his ability in coverage (six career passes defended). While he took a step forward last season, he was not asked to do much. Against the Big 12 Conference’s line of dual-threat quarterbacks, Murray was often deployed as a spy, lurking near the line of scrimmage. In zone coverage, he sometimes looked like a fish out of water, unsure of his surroundings. His responsibilities in man coverage were limited, though his athleticism offers a high ceiling.
Murray’s success will hinge on his mental processing of the game. NFL offenses attack overaggressive linebackers with play-action and misdirection, but Murray was most successful at Oklahoma when he dictated terms. Can he find a happy medium?
3. Ohio State’s Malik Harrison
Why he’d fit: The former high school quarterback steadily improved in his four years with the Buckeyes, earning first-team All-Big Ten Conference honors last season with a team-high 75 tackles (16½ for loss) in 14 starts. The 6-3, 247-pound Harrison has the size and strength of an outside linebacker — one physical analogue might actually be the Ravens’ Tyus Bowser — but developed into a throwback middle linebacker for Ohio State.
Harrison’s ability to diagnose run schemes, fill gaps and shed blocks should translate well to the NFL, and his growth last season in coverage and as a pass rusher (4½ sacks) offers hope that he can develop into a reliable every-down inside linebacker. As a late-second-round pick, Harrison would be a sound investment. If the Ravens could get him in the third, he’d be a bargain.
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Why he might not: Harrison’s combine testing (a solid 4.66-second 40-yard dash and a position-best 6.83-second three-cone drill) suggests there’s room for improvement in coverage, where he’s been somewhat limited. According to Pro Football Focus, Harrison gave up 17 catches, 220 yards and two touchdowns on 25 targets last season.
As with Murray, Harrison’s downhill tendencies leave him vulnerable on play fakes, but he’s noticeably slower and less fluid in his recoveries.
4. Oregon’s Troy Dye
Why he’d fit: The 6-3, 231-pound Dye is the only player in Ducks history to lead the team in tackles in four straight seasons, twice topping 100 stops. In both zone and man coverage, he’s one of the draft’s more promising linebackers, showing impressive range, disruptive length and good anticipation. A productive blitzer with explosive finishing pop, Dye could project as a weak-side or middle linebacker in Baltimore.
Why he might not: Dye has a lanky frame and skinny lower body, which means he’ll run into trouble when he can’t get his hands on a blocker first. He’s also slow to read his keys and attack in the running game. Dye can contribute immediately on special teams, but if the Ravens take him with a Day 2 pick, they’d expect more out of him as a rookie.
5. Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither
Why he’d fit: Davis-Gaither was a do-everything defender for the Mountaineers, lining up as an edge rusher, off-ball linebacker and slot cornerback. At the Senior Bowl, he moved over to inside linebacker and was named one of the South team’s standout players. At the combine, he weighed in at 6-1, 224 pounds and didn’t run because of a stress fracture in his foot. That lingering injury made Davis-Gaither’s senior year only more impressive: 104 tackles (14½ for loss), five sacks, eight pass breakups and one interception.
Why he might not: What worked in the Sun Belt Conference might not work at the next level — at least not right away. (Just ask the Ravens’ Jaylon Ferguson, a Louisiana Tech product.) Davis-Gaither’s tweener size is most evident in his struggles to stack and shed blockers, and his repetitions in man coverage are a question mark. His versatility should appeal to the Ravens, but they’d have to be convinced of his work in run defense to use a Day 2 pick.
Other possibilities: Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks, Mississippi State’s Willie Gay Jr., Wyoming’s Logan Wilson, Colorado’s Davion Taylor, Michigan State’s Joe Bachie, Utah State’s David Woodward, Purdue’s Markus Bailey