The Ravens have watched a parade of talented outside linebackers walk out the door since the end of the 2018 season.
First went Za’Darius Smith, who immediately became a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Green Bay. Then Terrell Suggs, the greatest pass rusher in team history. In March, Matthew Judon, the team’s only consistent sack producer in 2019 and 2020, left for the New England Patriots.
General manager Eric DeCosta tried to trade for help last season when he sent a third-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for former Maryland star Yannick Ngakoue, but that never worked out. Ngakoue tallied just three sacks in nine regular-season games and hardly marked the stat sheet as he played a combined 41 snaps in two playoff games. He signed with the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency.
The traffic has largely flowed one way as the Ravens have failed to restock in recent drafts. They re-signed versatile 2017 pick Tyus Bowser, but their other young outside linebacker, 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, has not played like a future starter.
They’ll again rely on veteran Pernell McPhee to set the edge and occasionally get to the quarterback in 2021. They’re also looking at veteran Justin Houston, who visited Baltimore earlier this month, as a possible post-draft addition. Most draft observers would be stunned, however, if DeCosta doesn’t use a high pick on an edge defender.
What do the Ravens need at edge rusher?
They need a young starter who can handle a wide range of duties, from pass rushing to setting the edge to, on occasion, dropping into coverage.
Under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens have not needed an elite outside pass rusher to generate pressure. They again blitzed more than any team in the league (44.1% of dropbacks) in 2020 and ranked top five in both total pressures and pressure percentage according to Pro-Football-Reference. With quarterbacks getting the ball out more quickly, they’ve consciously built their defense around a star-studded secondary and stout resistance to the run. They’re not necessarily looking for a one-dimensional pass rusher to come screaming off the edge on every snap. Ngakoue was the closest they had to that, and he didn’t fit as well as hoped.
Whether they need a double-digit sack producer or not, the Ravens certainly could use fresh talent at a position where they’ve lost so much. The good news for them is that a wide array of edge defenders project to be available in the second half of the first round.
Many mock drafters have DeCosta using one of his two first-round picks on the position. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, projected them to pick Jayson Oweh of Penn State at No. 27 and said several other prospects could fit just as well.
In his predraft news conference, DeCosta listed edge rusher as one of the deepest positions this year. “We see probably somewhere between five to eight guys in the first couple rounds that would have a chance to come in and really be legitimate edge setter, pass rusher-type of guys that can do a multitude of different things for you,” he said.
With that in mind, here are a few names the Ravens could target:
Michigan’s Kwity Paye
Why he’d fit: Paye explodes off the line, uses his powerful hands to discard blockers and hustles to catch ball carriers from behind. He’s an awesome physical specimen who, at 261 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds at Michigan’s pro day. He would also bring the flexibility the Ravens cherish. Paye lined up inside and outside and showed some ability to drop back and spy on skill-position stars.
Scouts rave about Paye’s intensity on the field and his receptiveness to coaching. He was born in a refugee camp in Guinea and moved to the U.S. with his mother and brother to start over. He made Academic All-Big Ten, and Michigan teammates elected him captain, so he’s a complete package.
Why he might not: According to most projections, the Ravens would have to trade up to draft Paye, so that’s problem No. 1. He played just four games and managed just two sacks as a senior, so his production didn’t always match the rosy words we hear from the scouts who like him best. More skeptical evaluators ding him for his unpolished approach to pass rushing.
Projection: Round 1
Miami’s Jaelan Phillips
Why he’d fit: The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Phillips carries an ideal frame for an NFL edge rusher and moves with the agility of a much smaller man. He plays with speed (4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Miami’s pro day) and power.
After a complicated beginning to his college career that raised questions about his love for football, Phillips broke out with eight sacks and 15 ½ tackles for loss in 2020. He played hard enough, against the run and the pass, to put some of those earlier doubts to rest.
Why he might not: Phillips only delivered one year of star-level production in college. He was an elite recruit who suffered multiple serious injuries — including a wrist injury when he was struck by a car — in his first two years at UCLA. He medically retired from the sport only to return and transfer to Miami.
It’s easy to envision him as an NFL star, but many teams will see him as too risky to justify a high first-round pick, which is why there’s an outside chance he could fall into range for the Ravens. “Jaelan Phillips is always going to be dependent on where teams are with him, the stuff off the field, because on the field he’s a top-10 pick,” Jeremiah said.
Projection: Round 1
Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari
Why he’d fit: Ojulari started for two years in the SEC and produced 12 ½ tackles for loss and 8 ½ sacks in 2020. He used his speed off the edge to beat some of the best college tackles in the country, and his long arms make up for below-average size. Scouts praise him as one of the most sophisticated pass rushers in the class.
“I would guess Ojulari would be somebody because of — having played in the SEC, having production there, having some explosive numbers, I would say that would be somebody that [the Ravens] would probably take over Oweh if he were to get there,” Jeremiah said.
Why he might not: Because he’s only 249 pounds, scouts question whether he’s strong enough to take on NFL blockers or big enough to shift inside when necessary. Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic, listed Ngakoue as Ojulari’s top NFL comparison, which suggests he might not be an ideal fit for the Ravens.
Projection: Round 1
Penn State’s Jayson Oweh
Why he’d fit: The 6-5, 257-pound Oweh made national headlines when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at Penn State’s pro day. That’s wide-receiver speed and hinted at the fun a coach like Martindale could have dreaming up uses for Oweh. He plays hard and projects as a Judon type who could drop into coverage as easily as he could fire off the edge. He also played well against the run in 2020.
“It’s fascinating because Oweh doesn’t have the sacks and Baltimore has always preached production,” Jeremiah said. “So the fact that he doesn’t have any production I would say, ‘Oh, he’s not going to Baltimore.’ But I think from how hard he plays, I think that kind of matches the DNA a little bit with the Ravens, and I think he did got a little bit of disruption even though he didn’t have the production.”
Why he might not: Oweh did not produce a single sack in 2020, his only year as a starter at Penn State. Scouts question his instincts and lack of counter moves as a pass rusher. As Jeremiah suggested, the Ravens have not traditionally used high picks on players with such limited track records.
Projection: Round 1
Washington’s Joe Tryon (Round 1-2): The 6-5, 259-pound Tryon goes all out to get around the edge on every snap, but scouts say he needs significant polishing as a pass rusher. He opted out in 2020 after starting just one season, so he’s another prospect with a limited resume.
Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. (Round 2): He gets off the line fast for a 6-3, 274-pound man, and his build would allow him to stay on the field for all three downs. Critics say he didn’t always play with the force his build promises and that he needs to expand his repertoire of pass-rush moves.
Houston’s Payton Turner (Round 2-3): The 6-6, 268-pound Turner plays nasty and showed significant skill development in a four-game sample last season. Scouts say he struggles to maintain leverage and only broke out at the end of his college career despite facing so-so competition.
Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II (Round 4): The 6-4, 261-pound Jones looks like a prototypical pass rusher and produced 17 ½ sacks over his final two years at Pitt. He plays hard, but scouts say he too often operates at one speed without a clear plan.
TV: ESPN, NFL Network