xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

Ravens position review: After uneven 2019, defensive line requires work to match its customary strength

The Ravens have arguably found more excellent values along the defensive line than in any other position group.

The interior line proved stout again in 2019, with Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Chris Wormley all playing well against the run. But the Ravens received little pass rushing punch from inside, and with Pierce entering unrestricted free agency and no clear replacement on the roster, they face more uncertainty than usual on the defensive front.

Advertisement

2019 in review

The Ravens made a push for veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, hoping to add a proven interior pass rusher. When McCoy instead signed with the Carolina Panthers, they were left with the same core — minus defensive end Brent Urban — that helped them lead the league in total defense in 2018.

The plot thickened when Pierce showed up overweight and was unable to participate in mandatory mini-camp. Willie Henry, widely perceived as the team’s most promising interior pass rusher, played himself off the roster with an underwhelming preseason.

Advertisement

So the Ravens began the season with less depth than they were accustomed to. They gave up a combined 333 rushing yards in Weeks 3 and 4, prompting general manager Eric DeCosta to scramble for outside solutions. In early October, the Ravens signed defensive end Jihad Ward, a player they’d liked as a draft prospect. In November, after Pierce suffered an ankle injury, they added veteran defensive tackles Justin Ellis and Domata Peko.

Pierce missed just two games, and once he returned, the Ravens had success rotating him, Williams and Peko on the inside. Williams delivered one of the best stretches of his career as they vaulted to fourth in total defense by the end of the season. Ward also became a dependable contributor, playing more than half the team’s defensive snaps in nine of the Ravens’ last 10 games. A lack of pass-rushing production was the major knock against the unit, with the team’s defensive linemen combining for just five sacks.

The Ravens also struggled to win battles along the line of scrimmage in their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. Derrick Henry battered them for 195 rushing yards, though Williams and Pierce combined for 11 tackles and Ward managed a team-high two quarterback hits.

Depth chart

Brandon Williams

Skinny: Williams had one of his better seasons in 2019 and gives the Ravens dependable performance as a run stuffer and drawer of double teams. Critics will always say he’s overpaid given his lack of pass-rushing production, but he’s still a building block for the Ravens’ defense.

Contract status: Between his base salary, signing bonus and restructure money, Williams will represent a $14.17 million salary-cap hit in the fourth year of the five-year, $52-million contract he signed before the 2017 season. The Ravens could save more than $9 million in cap money if they cut him before next season.

Chris Wormley

Skinny: Wormley has not developed into a consistent playmaker, but he receives solid grades for his run defense from Pro Football Focus and was on the field for about 45 percent of the Ravens’ snaps. They’ll count on him to be a durable run stopper again in 2020.

Contract status: Wormley will make about $2.37 million in salary and bonuses in the final season of the four-year deal he signed as a third-round pick out of Michigan.

Daylon Mack

Skinny: Mack played in just one game as a rookie and did little to suggest he was ready to help the Ravens. He profiled as a similar player to Pierce coming out of Texas A&M but will need to take a significant step forward to force himself into the team’s plans for 2020.

Contract status: Mack will make about $660,000 in the second season of the four-year deal he signed as a fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M.

Advertisement

Patrick Ricard

Skinny: Ricard was the Ravens’ best interior pass rusher in the preseason, but he made himself such a valuable player on offense that his defensive role mostly vanished down the stretch. His two-way versatility remains a cool story, but expect the offense-first trend to continue in 2020.

Contract status: Ricard will make about $4.6 million in salary and bonuses in the first season of the two-year extension he signed.

Michael Pierce

Skinny: Pierce took a step back from his career-best performance in 2018 but still graded as the Ravens’ best interior lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. He’ll receive a nice deal to be someone’s run stuffer this year, but unless the market for him proves slower than expected, that team probably won’t be the Ravens.

Contract status: Pierce is an unrestricted free agent.

Jihad Ward

Skinny: Ward quickly earned playing time after the Ravens signed him in October and impressed coaches with his versatility, despite unremarkable statistics. The Ravens see him as a good fit for their system and could bring him back.

Contract status: Ward is an unrestricted free agent.

Justin Ellis

Skinny: The Ravens signed Ellis to provide depth when Pierce hurt his ankle in November, and though he played just 70 defensive snaps, he graded well when he was on the field. The Ravens could bring the 29-year-old veteran back on a modest deal to mitigate the possible loss of Pierce.

Contract status: Ellis is an unrestricted free agent.

Domata Peko Sr.

Skinny: The Ravens also signed Peko as a late-season addition, and he became a regular part of their interior-line rotation, providing welcome push as a pass rusher in his best games. It’s not clear whether the 14-year veteran wants to play in 2020, but if he does, a mid-season reunion with the Ravens would not be out of the question.

Contract status: Peko is an unrestricted free agent.

Offseason questions

1. Will the Ravens make an investment in an interior pass rusher?

We generally focus on the edge when discussing the Ravens’ pressing need for pass rushers, especially if they lose Matthew Judon in free agency or trade him after applying the franchise tag. But the roster sorely lacked an interior rusher last season, and the Ravens don’t have an obvious candidate in their developmental chain.

That’s why they pursued McCoy last offseason and might go after him (or a similar player) again during the coming free-agent rush. The six-time Pro Bowl selection is past his prime, but his five sacks last season matched the total for the Baltimore defensive line. McCoy remains an above-average starter at age 32, and he could be available to help the Ravens on a modest, short-term deal.

2. How will they replace Pierce if he signs with another team?

The Ravens might still bring Pierce back if the market for him is tepid, but their shopping priorities lie elsewhere. For the first time since 2015, they won’t be able to count on the luxury of rotating two massive, high-end run stuffers in the middle of their defense.

Advertisement

They’d love to see Mack step into the role but might also re-sign Ellis to give them familiar depth as they seek a long-term replacement for Pierce (and eventually, Williams). They draft a defensive lineman almost every year and with a passel of early-round picks, will likely do so again in 2020. If none of these solutions work out, it’s conceivable they could go back to Peko, who played well, for a midseason boost.

Without a lot of money to spend on the position, the Ravens will have to get creative to replace Pierce’s production.

3. Can Williams handle more playing time if necessary?

Though Pierce was a favorite of analytics sites such as Pro Football Focus, Williams has remained the Ravens’ most trusted lineman in essential games and moments. When he’s not on the field, they simply don’t play as well against the run. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has tried to rest the 336-pound veteran early in the schedule, but Williams routinely played more than 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps down the stretch last season.

Might he see such workloads for all of 2020 without Pierce to rotate in for him?

The Ravens would prefer not to ask more of the 31-year-old Williams. And they’ll try to add depth, through the draft or free agency, to prevent him from becoming overburdened. But the more they demanded, the better he played in 2019. He’ll be one of their most indispensable defenders again this season.

Possible additions

This is a position where the Ravens have work to do, just to get back to where they were last season. They’re working to re-sign Ward, who did not produce blow-away numbers but impressed coaches with his adaptability and ornery on-field toughness. They could also bring back Ellis for interior depth. The big question in free agency is whether they’ll go after a proven interior pass rusher such as McCoy or former Maryland and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Quinton Jefferson. Those guys aren’t plentiful and tend to be expensive, so we don’t know how such a signing would fit the Ravens’ modest budget, especially if they spend significant money on Judon and/or another edge rusher such as Jason Pierre-Paul. Beyond that, the Ravens will almost certainly draft a defensive lineman but perhaps not in the first few rounds, because they also have needs at inside linebacker, guard and wide receiver.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement