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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens draft preview: The pass rush needs a spark, and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II shows elite flashes

It wasn’t long ago that the Ravens were swimming in pass-rush possibilities.

When free agency opened in mid-March, their need for an impactful edge rusher was as obvious as the array of promising paths to getting one. The Ravens could sign their guy in free agency. They could take him at No. 14 overall in the NFL draft. They could maybe even trade down and get him later in the first round.

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Then general manager Eric DeCosta’s deal for free-agent outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith fell through. Then Michigan outside linebacker David Ojabo, a first-round prospect who’d blossomed under new Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald in Ann Arbor, tore his Achilles tendon. Then Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker became not just a sure-thing top-15 pick but also a possible top-two pick, with Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson II’s steady rise perhaps taking him out of the Ravens’ range as well.

For as many boxes as Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson II's breakout 2021 season checked, for as splashy as some of his highlight-reel sacks are, for as much as he looks like a prototypical NFL edge rusher, there are still questions about his pass-rush potential.

As team officials prepare for Thursday’s first round, they must weigh their need to address the pass rush against the realities of their draft board. The Ravens finished 28th in sack rate and 24th in pressure rate last season, according to Pro Football Reference. Top outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh are both coming back from offseason operations. The depth behind them is unremarkable. The interior pass rush remains a work in progress.

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But given the Ravens’ best-player-available approach in the draft, their roster holes elsewhere and the caliber of edge rushers who could be available at No. 14 overall, DeCosta could have to hold off on adding help until at least Friday.

“There are some good players,” he said at the Ravens’ predraft news conference earlier this month. “Typically, those guys go fast. We think there will be a run of those guys, probably in the top 10. There might be a guy or two that falls down to us at 14, potentially.”

If one of those guys happens to be Johnson, however, the Ravens figure to take a long look.

The case for Jermaine Johnson II

It’s easy to fall hard for Johnson.

Measurables? The 6-foot-5, 254-pound Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds (92nd percentile among edge rushers), posted a broad jump of nearly 10 1/2 feet (91st percentile) and has a 6-9 wingspan (70th percentile).

Run defense? Johnson is widely considered the best edge setter in the draft, finishing with 23 run stops last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Pass rush? All Johnson did was lead the Atlantic Coast Conference with 12 sacks in 12 games.

“I love him,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a conference call last month. “He’s strong and he’s got power. He’s got speed off the edge and he’s got bend off the corner.”

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And yet his stardom is difficult to project. For as many boxes as Johnson’s breakout 2021 season checked, for as splashy as some of his highlight-reel sacks are, for as much as he looks like a prototypical NFL edge rusher, there are still questions about his pass-rush potential. In his lone season as a full-time starter, the Georgia transfer had frustrating lows (struggling to pierce a woeful North Carolina offensive line until late) and ecstatic highs (all but posterizing North Carolina State left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, a projected top-10 pick, with a spin move).

Like Walker, Johnson does not profile analytically as a slam-dunk pick. His 18% pass-rush win rate when starting from an outside-the-tackle alignment, where he’d likely operate in Baltimore, ranked well behind most of his early-round peers last year. His overall win rate, which is typically more predictive than a player’s sack rate, was just 14.1% in 2021, which ranked outside the top 50 nationally. (Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh’s win rate, even in his abridged no-sack 2020 season at Penn State, was 18.4%.)

Maybe most worrisome, in a league where the average release time for a quarterback is 2.7 seconds, Johnson racked up 84% of his pressures at least 2.6 seconds after the snap, according to PFF. None of his pressures came in 2 seconds or quicker, a rarity for top pass-rush prospects.

With his torrid offseason, however, Johnson has locked up a first-round selection and pushed his stock into potential top-five territory. At the Senior Bowl, he dominated during the week of practices. At the NFL scouting combine, he proved to be one of the draft’s most athletic defenders.

“Jermaine is a great example of a guy taking advantage of an opportunity,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. “He was at Georgia as a backup. He goes down to Florida State and really put together an outstanding year. He really created an opportunity for himself and really took advantage of it and performed well through this season and obviously in the offseason.”

Even if the Ravens see Johnson as their next great pass rusher, they’d have to position themselves to take him, whether that’s at No. 14 overall or earlier. Here are some other edge defenders the Ravens might consider later in the draft:

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The 6-4, 266-pound George Karlaftis out of Purdue should be available at No. 14 overall for the Ravens, and there’s a lot to like.

First round

Purdue’s George Karlaftis: The 6-4, 266-pound Karlaftis should be available at No. 14 overall, and there’s a lot to like. His 23.6% pass-rush win rate last season was equal to Aidan Hutchinson’s and better than Kayvon Thibodeaux (23.5%), David Ojabo (19%) and Johnson’s (14.2%), according to PFF. A three-year starter for the Boilermakers who just turned 21, Karlaftis finished with 117 career pressures despite a three-game 2020 season. Last year, he had five sacks, 11 1/2 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and 54 pressures.

Karlaftis, a former youth water polo star in his native Greece, makes the most of his strong base. He can convert his quick get-off into brute-force power, walking 300-plus-pound offensive tackles back into the pocket. With his active hands and impressive balance, he could also line up over guards on passing downs, just as the similarly built Za’Darius Smith did with the Ravens.

Because of his relatively short arms and inconsistent bend, however, Karlaftis’s range of pass-rush moves could be limited at the next level. He rarely flew by tackles on speed rushes and struggled to translate his pass-rush wins into sacks. There’s also room for growth as a run defender, where his constant movement can leave him outleveraged.

“There’s teams that think he’s one of the top 15 players,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said in a conference call last week, “and then there’s teams that think he’s not worth a first- or second-round pick.”

Second round

Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie: The 6-2, 250-pound Ebiketie, who moved from Cameroon to Silver Spring as a teenager, is one of the draft’s most electric pass rushers. According to PFF, 55% of his 52 quarterback pressures last season came within 2.5 seconds of the snap. Hutchinson, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, was the only other top prospect to record at least 50% of his pressures that quickly. Ebiketie finished second in the Big Ten Conference last season in tackles for loss (18) and third in sacks (9 1/2), blocked two kicks and forced two fumbles.

Despite his impressive length — he ranks in the 71st percentile among edge rushers in wingspan — Ebiketie could struggle to set the edge early in his career against powerful run blockers. His middling strength also shows up in his pass rushes, where he struggled at times to shed tackles who locked him up early.

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Third round

Kentucky’s Josh Paschal: The 6-3, 268-pound Paschal, a Prince George’s County native and three-time team captain, was the Southeastern Conference’s highest-graded edge rusher last season, according to PFF. An elite run defender, he also had 5 1/2 sacks and 38 pressures in 12 starts. Unlike most edge rushers, Paschal often lined up over offensive tackles in the Wildcats’ scheme, and he could kick inside on passing downs in the NFL. He had 13 pressures, 10 hurries and a sack on inside alignments last season, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Fourth round

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Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders: The 6-5 Sanders had just 2 1/2 sacks and 6 1/2 tackles for loss in 14 starts last season, his fewest in three years, partly because of a more conservative alignment along the Bearcats’ defensive front. But he still finished with 54 hurries, according to PFF, and had 10 pressures against Alabama in their College Football Playoff semifinal. A stomach bug knocked Sanders’ weigh-in at the NFL scouting combine down to 228 pounds, but he was back up to 247 pounds for Cincinnati’s pro day last month. More troubling is his penalty problem; Sanders was penalized 24 times over the past three years, including nine offside infractions last year.

NFL DRAFT

Thursday, 8 p.m.

Friday, 7 p.m.

Saturday, noon

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