Jaylon Ferguson does not want anything to be easy.
“I always accept a challenge,” the Ravens linebacker said Monday after another sweaty practice at the team’s facility in Owings Mills. “I rush from the hard side of the field, where the quarterback can see me. I don’t rush from the blind side. I like a little extra challenge.”
That mentality served the 23-year-old rookie well in his first months as an NFL player, because the pro game did not come easily. He’d overpowered many a college blocker in his record-setting career at Louisiana Tech. But that was no longer possible against NFL offensive linemen, who matched his strength and quickness and seemed prepared for every pass-rushing trick. Ferguson appeared overwhelmed at times during offseason workouts.
“Everybody’s real, real, real fast,” he said. “So it’s all about catching up.”
He’s started to do that of late, especially in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ferguson registered a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in 24 defensive snaps.
“I really liked what we saw from Jaylon Ferguson.,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “He’s just going to get more and more playing time. He made it simple, just being physical with the man across from him. He wasn’t thinking about 10 other things, which rookies do. You saw a lot of good rushes, and you saw his power, which we’ve been looking for in training camp going against somebody else.”
Ferguson’s progress will be of particular interest this week, when Za’Darius Smith, the Ravens’ most productive pass rusher last season, returns to town with the Green Bay Packers.
The Ravens lost Smith and Terrell Suggs in free agency, leaving their defense notably thin on the edges. They drafted Ferguson, who broke Suggs’ NCAA career sack record, to be part of the solution. The Ravens were thrilled when he fell to them at the 85th overall pick. They had explored trading up to take him earlier.
General manager Eric DeCosta did not hesitate to put pressure on his new linebacker, noting the “big hole” Ferguson was expected to help fill.
Reality set in when Ferguson arrived for organized team activities in May. Yes, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound rookie looked the part of an NFL pass rusher, but he played hesitantly.
“I just have to do a good job of slowing the game down for him,” Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen said recently, hinting at the rookie’s steep learning curve.
Ferguson praised his veteran teammates for counseling him through the inevitable struggles.
“I’m still a rookie and I’m still learning, still making strides,” he said. “But I think the biggest thing I’ve got going for me is the support of my teammates in the room with me. I might mess up in practice or get something wrong in the meeting, but they’re always helping. They’re quick to correct, but they’re not insulting me. One thing I love about the room is that everyone realizes it’s going to take all of us to win.”
Veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who plays a similar power-oriented game, has taken a particular interest in him.
“That's my young buck,” McPhee said. “I’m just trying to teach him some of the ropes that I know and try to let him be himself at the same time. They don't call him ‘Sack Master’ for nothing, so he's just learning a new level of game on the next level.”
Actually, the nickname is “Sack Daddy,” but don’t expect Ferguson to correct McPhee.
“You can’t help but listen to him,” Ferguson said. “The coaches have their ways to play, but then McPhee has his way to play from experience. So to have him in my corner, giving feedback every time, it’s a real confidence booster. I appreciate the heck out of him for everything he’s doing.”
Coaches and teammates such as McPhee have encouraged Ferguson to unleash the power and aggression that set him apart in the first place. He’s a bull at heart.
“I’m a power rusher,” he said. “That’s my thing.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the rookie showed more than just straight-ahead push against the Jaguars, however. “His use of hands, he’s kind of slippery in there,” Harbaugh noted after reviewing the game film.
Ferguson grinned as he discussed his debut at M&T Bank Stadium.
“It felt like the first step of many,” he said. “My first NFL game, even though it was the preseason. I felt like it was my Super Bowl. I had a good time, and I played pretty good.”
Away from the Ravens, one of Ferguson’s most cherished supporters is his younger brother, Jazz, who’s trying to make the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free-agent wide receiver out of Northwestern State. On the same night Ferguson busted out against the Jaguars, his brother scored a touchdown against the Denver Broncos.
They do their best to talk every day as they go through similar trials, separated by thousands of miles.
“My brother, we’ve been together so long that it’s weird not seeing each other every day,” Ferguson said. “The ultimate goal is to end up on the same team again, maybe in the Pro Bowl.”
The Pro Bowl comment hints at an athletic bravado that bubbles underneath Ferguson’s humble demeanor. He speaks in a quiet Louisiana drawl and defers to his elders, but he’s confident he’ll solve the art of NFL pass rushing, which he refers to as “one big game of chess.”
Just don’t ask him to make any grand predictions about what will come next in his rookie season, which he knows won’t be easy.