Last year, with their secondary well stocked and their pass rush trending up, the Ravens spent a small fortune on a questionable investment: their run defense.
Defensive lineman Calais Campbell, after a 2020 season low on sacks (four, his fewest since his rookie year) and high on absences (four missed games, the most in his career), returned to Baltimore with a $13 million salary cap hit. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams, a reliable and durable interior anchor over eight seasons with the Ravens, was also back. His price tag: $12.9 million.
Stopping the run has long been “a Ravens tenet,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine last month, and in an otherwise disastrous defensive season, Campbell and Williams could not be blamed for a leaky front. The Ravens finished third in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.8) and fourth in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Only five opponents rushed for at least 100 yards against them.
But in devoting nearly one-seventh of the Ravens’ salary cap space to two run-stopping stalwarts, DeCosta saw limited dividends. Campbell finished with 12 quarterback hits and 1 ½ sacks; Williams had one and none, respectively. For more than the price of two Arik Armsteads, the pass-rush-challenged Ravens got just 19 total quarterback pressures from the duo. Seventy-five defenders finished with more last season, according to Pro Football Reference, and Armstead alone had 17.
With Campbell, Williams and tackle Justin Ellis all headed to free agency after the 2021 season, team officials saw this offseason as an opportunity to modernize an aging, old-school line. But a youth movement has yet to get off the ground. Campbell, who turns 36 in September, signed a two-year, $12.5 million extension last week. Tackle Michael Pierce, who turns 30 in November and has 6 ½ sacks over five NFL seasons, returned to Baltimore last month on a three-year, $16.5 million contract.
Even as young linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington prepare for bigger roles in first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald’s defense, the Ravens face a fascinating question ahead of next week’s NFL draft, where they have the No. 14 overall pick: Is behemoth Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis’ potential too great to ignore as a possible first-round pick?
The case for Jordan Davis
DeCosta has had four first-round picks in his first three years in charge of the Ravens’ draft, and one trait unites them all: straight-line speed. Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, when healthy, was considered a threat to break the combine’s 40-yard-dash record. Patrick Queen’s 40 time ranks in the 94th percentile among inside linebackers, while Odafe Oweh’s ranks in the 99th among edge rushers. Only wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s predraft speed wasn’t elite, and he still clocked a 4.4-second 40 at his pro day.
At 6 feet 6, 340 pounds, Davis does not profile as a track and field star. He emerged as perhaps the country’s best defender last season not because he dominated like Aaron Donald but because he dominated like his playing idol, John Henderson, the former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle who would rag-doll opposing linemen.
At the combine, though, Davis showed that freakish athleticism is indiscriminate in nature. He was taller than tight end Rob Gronkowski, heavier than offensive tackle Jason Peters, faster than quarterback Patrick Mahomes (4.78-second 40) and quicker off the line than wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1.68-second 10-yard split).
Davis’ Relative Athletic Score, which uses a player’s measurables to determine his athletic potential, is a perfect 10. He’s the most athletic defensive tackle prospect since at least 1987, according to RAS developer Kent Lee Platte, and the second-most athletic prospect ever, behind only Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
“He was the best guy out there,” an NFC executive told Sports Illustrated after the combine. “One of the single-most impressive combine performances ever.”
Davis’ size belies his role at Georgia. Despite having the frame of a prototypical two-gapping nose tackle — in a two-gap scheme, which the Ravens have traditionally used, down linemen are responsible for handling the gap on either side of them — Davis often lined up elsewhere. He played more snaps aligned as a three-technique (over the opposing guard’s outside shoulder) than as a one-technique (over either shoulder of the center) or zero-technique (face-to-face with the center), according to Sports Info Solutions.
That versatility could make him a fit in Baltimore, where Pierce projects as Williams’ replacement at nose tackle. Davis could share early-down snaps with Madubuike, one of the Ravens’ top defenders against zone-blocking schemes; Campbell, who could benefit from a less-is-more approach in his 15th NFL season; and Washington, who was stout in a reserve role in his second season. Lineman Derek Wolfe, if his health cooperates, could also start on either side of Pierce.
Davis’ pass-rush production is limited, but his potential is intriguing. He never had more than 2 ½ sacks in any of his four seasons at Georgia, relying mostly on a powerful bull rush. Davis also played just 25 pass-rush snaps on third or fourth down last year, according to SIS, owing largely to his poor conditioning and the Bulldogs’ wealth of pass rushers. But Georgia coach Kirby Smart said at the team’s pro day last month that Davis “absolutely” could have been a three-down lineman for the team and noted that Davis flashed his pass-rush ability regularly in practice.
Even if a slimmed-down, coached-up Davis offers little on passing downs, his mere presence could help the Ravens’ pass defense. In the modern NFL, as defenses increasingly turn to two-high-safety structures that sacrifice numbers in the box for more coverage downfield, a tackle as strong as Davis changes the math on run plays. If it takes two offensive linemen to block one defensive linemen, why task a safety with a run fit? As teams search for the NFL’s next star interior pass rusher, there’s still value in a potentially generational run stuffer.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
“The game has changed,” DeCosta said at the combine last month. “We have always believed, and still believe, that you’ve got to stop the run. … On the other hand, teams are throwing the ball more and more. Teams are using the passing game more and more. The running game is maybe not what it was for most teams five years ago, 10 years ago. We’ve always wanted a strong defensive line, guys that could two-gap and stop the run. In saying that, we also want guys that can rush the passer.”
Here are some other linemen the Ravens might consider later in the draft:
Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt: The 6-3, 307-pound Wyatt had just five sacks over his four years with the Bulldogs, the last two as a starter, but he has the tools, motor and versatility to develop into a disruptive interior pass rusher. Wyatt showed his explosive traits at the combine, where he ran the 40 in 4.77 seconds and posted an impressive broad jump. His lateral mobility should make him effective defending zone concepts and running pass-rush games.
On the field, Wyatt never had more than 2 ½ sacks in a season, hurt somewhat by Georgia’s conservative scheme, and with his average length, he can cede ground against double teams. Off the field, there are potentially more significant red flags. Walter Football reported Thursday that Wyatt has been involved in multiple domestic violence incidents. Considering the Ravens’ zero-tolerance policy, a background investigation could be disqualifying.
Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey: The 6-4, 292-pound Winfrey finished a solid week at Senior Bowl practices with a standout performance in the showcase game, finishing with three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and Most Valuable Player honors. He has an imposing frame, impressive length, heavy hands and a quick first step, which helped him rack up 5 ½ sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 12 games last season. Winfrey isn’t an especially fluid athlete, however, and his delayed reaction time and limited array of pass-rush counters will have to improve.
Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis: The 6-4, 312-pound Mathis moved all around the Crimson Tide’s front last season, finishing with nine sacks in 15 games (12 starts). But he projects as more of a high-impact run defender at the next level, where his burly frame, active hands and solid awareness can help him take on double teams and work as a two-gapping tackle. Despite Mathis’ arsenal of moves and counters, his average change-of-direction ability will hurt on passing downs.
Tennessee’s Matthew Butler: The 6-4, 295-pound Butler improved every year with the Volunteers, culminating in his 2021 season, when he had 8 ½ tackles for loss and five sacks in 13 games (12 starts). Defensive line coach Rodney Garner called Butler, a team captain, “probably the smartest guy I’ve ever coached, by far,” and his effort and technique show up on tape. But he lacks elite physical traits, and he could struggle to hold up inside against bigger offensive linemen.