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Ravens position review: Patrick Queen is the new leader at inside linebacker. What’s his next step?

Last offseason, the Ravens needed their next cornerstone inside linebacker. They decided not to pay for one in free agency. Then they waited for one on the NFL draft’s opening night. Then, one night after Patrick Queen fell to them at No. 28 overall, they grabbed another highly touted prospect, Malik Harrison.

An unusual offseason gave way to an inconsistent regular season at the position. Next to veteran L.J. Fort’s stabilizing presence, Queen’s up-and-down play stood out. It was a group that showed its age, with Harrison coming on strong one month and special teams ace Chris Board emerging in another. There were injuries and special teams contributions and coaching staff changes.

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In the eighth of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s inside linebacker situation. Next up is cornerback.

2020 in review

After a closely watched training camp battle, the Ravens’ Week 1 starters were their rookies: Queen at strong-side inside linebacker and Harrison at weak-side inside linebacker. But the game’s eventual timeshare at the position served as a preview of the team’s 2020 snap count: Queen a comfortable No. 1, followed by Fort and then Harrison and Board.

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All four would start at least twice, with Queen (16) and Fort (eight) leading the way. Further down the depth chart were Otaro Alaka and undrafted free agent Kristian Welch, primarily special teams contributors. On the unit’s best days, the group was getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers. On its worst, the Ravens were struggling in coverage and missing tackles. With so many young players contributing, it was a low-floor, high-ceiling kind of season.

Depth chart

Patrick Queen

Skinny: The former LSU star finished third in Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year voting after leading the Ravens with 106 tackles (nine for loss) while adding three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and 13 pressures, all at age 21. But Queen also missed 12 tackles, according to Pro-Football-Reference, tied for second most in the NFL, and allowed three touchdowns and a 104.4 passer rating in coverage.

Contract: Queen’s entering the second year of a four-year rookie contract that has a fifth-year team option. He has a $2.8 million salary cap hit in 2021.

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L.J. Fort

Skinny: Fort had 53 tackles (two for loss) and graded out as the Ravens’ best inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus, while missing two games with a finger injury. He was a reliable run defender, but opponents completed nearly 80% of their passes against him in coverage. A special teams staple, Fort played over half of the Ravens’ defensive snaps just once all season.

Contract: Fort, 31, is entering the second year of a two-year, $5.5 million contract extension he signed during the 2019 season. He has a cap hit of $3 million, with a base salary of $2.3 million.

Malik Harrison

Skinny: The third-round pick started six games, and he seemed close to establishing a regular defensive role in November. But Harrison played fewer than 10 snaps in four of the Ravens’ final five games, including the postseason. A sure tackler, he finished with 44 total, with his biggest contributions coming against the run and on special teams. His impact in the pass rush and in coverage was minimal.

Contract: Harrison is entering the second year of a four-year rookie contract. He counts $1 million against the cap in 2021.

Chris Board

Skinny: In his third season in Baltimore, the former undrafted free agent set career highs in starts (two), tackles (53), sacks (2 ½) and defensive snaps. Board struggled with missed tackles (a unit-worst 22.5% rate, according to PFR) but forced eight quarterback pressures. On special teams, Board finished with 331 snaps, second most on the Ravens.

Contract: Board is a pending restricted free agent, meaning the Ravens must decide whether to extend a qualifying offer — likely a right-of-first-refusal tender worth over $2 million — sign him to a contract extension or part ways.

Kristian Welch

Skinny: Signed off the practice squad in November, Welch appeared in 10 games his rookie year. Undrafted out of Iowa, he finished with five tackles in eight defensive snaps and 173 special teams snaps.

Contract: Welch is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning that if the Ravens offer him a league-minimum one-year contract, he can sign only with them.

Otaro Alaka

Skinny: The former undrafted free agent averaged 13.8 special teams snaps per game before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, when coach John Harbaugh said Alaka was “really coming on.” Alaka also missed the final three-plus months of his rookie season in 2019 with a hamstring injury.

Contract: Alaka is entering the third year of his rookie contract. He has an $850,000 base salary in 2021.

Offseason questions

1. What does the next step look like for Patrick Queen?

The easy comparison for Queen is his former LSU teammate Devin White, a 2019 first-round pick and newly minted Super Bowl LV star for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. White finished the 2020 season with second-team All-Pro honors after posting 140 tackles (15 for loss), nine sacks and a forced fumble. With how the Ravens use the athletic Queen in a similarly blitz-happy scheme, that level of production might not be out of reach.

But if defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale wants to get the most out of Queen, he’ll need him to become as effective dropping back as he is moving forward. Queen’s ability in pass defense was heralded before the draft, but running backs gave him trouble in man-to-man coverage early in the season, and his zone awareness was often lacking. (White, for all his positive attributes, was among the NFL’s most picked-on linebackers in coverage last season.)

Queen might not turn into the Year 2 star that Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley were in Baltimore, but it’s reasonable to expect a leap forward. He was a slow starter at LSU, and he spent most of his offseason learning an NFL defense over Zoom conferences. After his perceived Defensive Rookie of the Year snub, he told “The Pat McAfee Show” on Wednesday that the decision was “personal.” He said he planned to get back to working out soon and “go earn what I want.”

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2. Do the Ravens need to settle on a second starter?

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It’s clear the Ravens trusted the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Harrison to limit the more rugged offenses on their schedule last year; he played over 45% of the defensive snaps just four times: against the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts and in both meetings with the Tennessee Titans. But Harrison rarely played in nickel packages, which defenses typically deploy against three-wide-receiver formations.

Instead, the Ravens turned to the smaller Fort and Board, who fared better in coverage. Harrison showed enough pass-rush ability and athleticism in coverage at Ohio State to be considered a potential second-round pick. This is the offseason for him to seize on that potential. But with Fort’s steady hand and Board’s steady growth — assuming he returns — the Ravens can also afford to be patient in 2021, choosing their matchups as they see fit.

3. How will a coaching change affect the position?

In January, Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald, who’d helped welcome every inside linebacker on the team’s roster to Baltimore, was named Michigan’s defensive coordinator. Harbaugh didn’t replace the fresh-faced 33-year-old with another up-and-coming coach; he hired someone 25 years older, someone with a last name that resonates in Baltimore.

As inside linebackers coach, Rob Ryan, 58, will bring what Harbaugh called “extensive experience” and an “outstanding ability to connect with and teach players.” A former defensive coordinator for four NFL teams, Ryan knows what he wants out of his linebackers. After being named the Washington Football Team’s coach in 2019, he told reporters: “I know our guys are going to come downhill and dent some helmets and we’re going to be fun to watch.”

Possible additions

After using a pair of top-100 picks on inside linebackers last year, including their top overall selection, the Ravens don’t need to chase after impact players this offseason.

Still, with Fort’s age, Board’s uncertain future and Alaka’s injury history, the Ravens will keep an eye out for potential low-cost contributors in free agency and the draft. As Harbaugh’s made clear through his tenure, it helps to contribute on special teams.

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