There will not be a deeper position in this week’s NFL draft than defensive line. It could be historically strong. Strong enough that three of the top eight picks overall could be pass rushers. Strong enough that the top-end talents fortifying it could all be gone by the time the Ravens make their pick.
They certainly can use the help. After two offseason departures, and with a third possibly on the horizon, the Ravens could look to find their next sack artist at No. 22 overall — or not long thereafter.
Why might the Ravens use their first-round pick on an edge rusher?
Free agency hit the Ravens defense especially hard, but their pass rush most of all. Between outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith (8½ sacks) and Terrell Suggs (seven sacks), who signed with the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, the team lost more than a third of last season’s sack production and a combined 1,434 defensive snaps.
Another well-compensated exit could be an offseason away. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who tied with Suggs for second on the team in sacks, is an unrestricted free agent after this season. If he can sustain stretches of elite play — according to Pro Football Focus, his pass-rush win rate and pressure percentage from Week 8 to Week 14 last season both ranked in the top six for his position — he could earn a multiyear contract worth almost $20 million annually.
The Ravens pass rushers waiting in the wings have yet to take flight. Tim Williams (two sacks) and Tyus Bowser (½ sack) both played fewer than 200 defensive snaps last season, though general manager Eric DeCosta said in April that both have “flashed ability at our level.”
Even if the former Day 2 picks develop into productive players, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale needs more than three outside linebackers on the roster in 2019. The Ravens have eight picks to spend, and possibly more if they trade down. As with wide receiver, expect at least two edge rushers from this year’s haul.
Pass rusher is “a very strong position” this year, DeCosta said at the team’s predraft news conference, “whether that’s defensive end or outside linebacker. In terms of positional weakness, it’s tough to say. … There are a lot of really, really good players in this draft, and we expect to probably have about 180 draftable prospects when it’s all said and done.”
A few who could fall to the Ravens would make it tough for DeCosta to pass on the position or trade down.
Which edge rushers might the Ravens consider at No. 22 overall or on the second day?
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson — As far as pass-rush production goes, it’s hard to do better than the reigning winner of the Ted Hendricks Award, given to college football’s top defensive end. After posting 18 tackles for loss, 9½ sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games as a sophomore, Ferrell outdid himself last season, finishing with 19½ tackles for loss, 11½ sacks and three forced fumbles in 15 games. Scouts say he has the frame and fundamentals to handle NFL blockers immediately, effectively leveraging his strengths as a run stopper and pass rusher. But his greatest limitation could perhaps be magnified in the Ravens’ defensive schemes. Ferrell is seen as a 4-3 defensive end at the next level, someone who’s better off playing with his hand in the dirt every down. There are questions about whether he’s versatile enough to handle coverage if asked to play in a 3-4.
Montez Sweat, Mississippi State — Sweat cemented his first-round standing with an impressive showing during Senior Bowl workouts, then vaulted into top-10 consideration when he ran the 40-yard dash faster than all but two of the running backs at the NFL scouting combine. According to multiple reports, however, a heart condition has concerned some teams enough to remove him from their draft board entirely. With a background that’s not exactly pristine, either — he transferred from Michigan State after being indefinitely suspended in 2015 — Sweat could plummet into the late teens or even lower. But some team will be happy to have a 6-6, 260-pound, second-team All-American.
Rashan Gary, Michigan — There are medical concerns here, too, though nothing potentially life-threatening. Gary has a labral tear, according to the NFL Network, that could limit him throughout his rookie year but would not require shoulder surgery this offseason. A can’t-miss high school recruit who underwhelmed at times for the Wolverines, Gary was another must-see combine performer, running the 40 in 4.58 seconds and posting a vertical jump of 38 inches at 6-4, 277 pounds. But scouts say he attacks the pocket with a limited pass-rushing skill set and can run himself out of plays. Gary’s also far from a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker. If he falls to the Ravens, would they consider lining him up as a defensive end or even over a guard?
Brian Burns, Florida State — Burns isn’t quite the athletic anomaly that Sweat is, but he’s certainly an outlier, one unlikely to be available late in the first round. At the combine, he tested in the 95th percentile among edge rushers in wingspan and in the 97th percentile in broad jump and 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds). At a rail-thin 6-5, 230 pounds last season, he notched 15½ tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Now he’s reportedly up over 250 pounds, still light for a three-down NFL edge rusher but with some more room to grow. A well-rounded pass rusher who can beat tackles around the edge or wriggle past them on inside counters, Burns could thrive in the right system as an outside linebacker.
Chase Winovich, Michigan — There’s a bit of a gulf separating the consensus first-round edge rushers from those at the top of the second tier. Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson and Boston College’s Zach Allen could go off the board somewhere in the 30s, but the Wolverines’ third-team All-American is the odds-on favorite to beat them to the punch. He had 35 tackles for loss over his junior and senior seasons, proof of his first-step quickness and nonstop motor. Scouts say his aggressive mentality can hurt him in run defense, and with his size (6-3, 256 pounds), he’ll need to prove he can acquit himself well in space.