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Ravens training camp preview: Redesigned defensive line looks to pressure from inside, set the edge

If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.

After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens are scheduled to report to Owings Mills next Tuesday. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener.

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The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s defensive line situation is analyzed.

Who’s back

DT Brandon Williams: The veteran run stuffer played one of the best stretches of his career as the Ravens reeled off 12 straight wins to close the 2019 regular season. Some still criticize Williams’ lack of pass-rushing production given the heft of his contract, but he’s very good at what he does. The team’s run defense slips noticeably when he’s not on the field.

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DE Jihad Ward: The former second-round pick produced just seven tackles and one sack in 11 games for the Ravens. But coaches saw far more value than those numbers suggest, consistently praising Ward’s versatility and nastiness. That’s why the Ravens re-signed him to a one-year deal in March.

DT Justin Ellis: The Ravens signed the former Oakland Raiders starter midway through last season as they fortified their line after an injury to Michael Pierce. Ellis only played four games but held his own against the run in that limited action. The Ravens re-signed him to a one-year deal in March.

DT Daylon Mack: The 2019 fifth-round pick had a brief chance to show he was ready when Williams was sidelined for a Week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns. But Mack did not convince coaches, and he did not see the field for the rest of the season, ending up on injure reserve. Given the talent the Ravens added in the offseason, he’ll have to fight for his roster spot.

DL Patrick Ricard: Though he remains a unique two-way option, Ricard became more of an offensive player last season, making the Pro Bowl as a fullback. Of the 140 snaps he played on defense, only six came after the first 10 games of the season.

Who’s new

DE Calais Campbell: The Ravens acquired the five-time Pro Bowl selection from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fifth-round pick. They expect Campbell to bring pass-rushing punch but just as importantly, to stuff the outside runs that bedeviled them in 2019. The veteran’s 6½ sacks from last season don’t jump off the page, but there aren’t many better all-around defensive linemen in the NFL.

DE Derek Wolfe: The Ravens signed the longtime Denver Broncos starter after their deal with Michael Brockers fell through. Wolfe has struggled to stay on the field for all 16 games, but he’ll bring an interior pass-rushing pedigree the team has lacked in recent seasons. His seven sacks in 12 games last season would have easily ranked first among Ravens linemen.

DT Justin Madubuike: The Ravens drafted Madubuike in the third round out of Texas A&M. He’s on the small side for an interior defender, but coaches have praised his explosiveness, and he could earn early playing time as a three-technique or five-technique lineman behind Campbell and Wolfe.

DT Broderick Washington Jr.: The fifth-round pick out of Texas Tech is more of a power player than Madubuike, but he’s not a pure nose tackle in the mold of Williams or Mack. Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said he’s also athletic enough to play as a three-technique or five-technique lineman.

DT Aaron Crawford: The Ravens signed the three-year starter out of North Carolina as an undrafted free agent. Crawford thrived as a run-stuffing nose tackle for the Tar Heels.

What to watch

The Ravens emphasized power as they rebuilt their front seven in the wake of a playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in which Derrick Henry trampled them for 195 rushing yards. Despite the defense’s overall success in 2019, the Ravens received virtually no production from their interior pass rush, and they struggled to set the edge against outside runs. Campbell, Wolfe and perhaps Madubuike and Washington should help in both areas.

The Campbell trade was general manager Eric DeCosta’s prize move of the offseason. At age 33, Campbell might have seen his best days, but he thrived against the run and the pass in 2019, even as the Jaguars collapsed around him. His 6½ sacks (off from a peak of 14½ in 2017) don’t scream elite pass rusher, but the number is misleading. Campbell delivered 25 quarterback hits and 10 tackles for loss, which would have ranked second on the Ravens with room to spare. Pro Football Focus graded him as a high-end pass defender and one of the best run defenders in football. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale recently described him as the best five-technique lineman in the NFL.

Wolfe is no Campbell, but he’s another versatile lineman with a long track record of production. Madubuike, who drew praise from Ravens coach John Harbaugh for his quickness and heavy hands, has the talent to grow into a similar player.

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“You can work a combination of those guys,” Martindale said. “It all depends on how fast the younger guys come along. I just think that we’re better up front.”

With the new talent around him, Williams will be freed to play nose tackle, where he fits most naturally. The Ravens will miss Pierce, who signed a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings. But they re-signed Ellis to provide dependable depth behind Williams, and they’ll hope Mack and Washington grow into useful interior defenders.

Harbaugh and his staff came out of the Titans game displeased with their team’s performance along the line of scrimmage. No area of the roster received more attention in the offseason. So this will be a group to watch from day one of training camp.

X-factor

We often judge defensive fronts by their sack totals, but Harbaugh has made it clear the Ravens were just as focused on strengthening their run defense, particularly against plays outside the tackles. He expects AFC North opponents to lean heavily on outside runs in 2020 and beyond.

We saw the Browns use this approach to great effect in their Week 4 blowout win in Baltimore. Nick Chubb, one of the league’s greatest power-speed combinations, gouged the Ravens for 165 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries.

The nightmare recurred during a narrow Week 13 win over the San Francisco 49ers in which Raheem Mostert shredded the Ravens for 146 yards on 19 carries.

For years, the Ravens prided themselves on drafting and developing some of the best edge setters in football, from Terrell Suggs to Jarrett Johnson. But coaches were dissatisfied with the team’s progress in that area in 2019.

So DeCosta went outside for some of the best help available in Campbell, who earned the second highest run-defense grade among all interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. Wolfe has also consistently graded as an above-average run defender.

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The Ravens will count on these additions to clean up one of their few weaknesses from last season.

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Roster projection

The Ravens love defensive linemen and usually keep at least one or two developmental projects on their active roster. Down the stretch last season, they carried seven on their 53-man roster, if you include Ricard and count Ward as a lineman rather than a linebacker.

Williams, Campbell, Wolfe, Ward, Madubuike, Washington and Ricard are all roster locks, with Ellis also a candidate to make the team because the Ravens know they can slot him in if Williams needs a break or suffers an injury.

That leaves Mack in an unusually perilous spot for a recent draft pick. But the Ravens might be able to slide him onto their practice squad as he works to rebound from an unproductive rookie season.

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