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Ravens position review: Massive hole at outside linebacker looms with top contributors set to hit free agency

A midseason trade to boost the Ravens’ pass rush backfired and now the team is potentially looking at a completely different unit in 2021.

With five of the six outside linebackers who finished the season on the 53-man roster headed to unrestricted free agency, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged that there might be “turnover” at the position. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ standout performance in Super Bowl LV was another reminder of how important it is to create pressure with your defensive front.

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In the sixth of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s defensive end and outside linebacker situation. Next up is interior defensive line.

2020 in review

The Ravens entered the 2020 season with an outside linebacker group that mirrored the previous season. But there was a reason for confidence that the unit would perform better. Matthew Judon was coming off his first Pro Bowl selection. Pernell McPhee was returning from a season-ending triceps injury to serve as perhaps the defense’s best edge setter. Jihad Ward overachieved as a midseason signing. And young pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson flashed their potential after their snaps increased in the wake of McPhee’s injury.

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But several weeks into the season, coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was still relying on blitzes at a rate higher than any other team while the defense’s pressure rate ranked middle of the pack.

So during the bye week, the Ravens sent a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for Yannick Ngakoue, a former Maryland star and a 2017 Pro Bowl selection, in hopes of complementing their star-studded secondary with bookend pass rushers. Ngakoue had his moments (three sacks in 11 games, including the playoffs) but played just 20 snaps in the team’s season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round.

With free agency set to begin in about a month, the Ravens risk losing Ngakoue, Judon — who was named to a second Pro Bowl as his all-around contributions continued — and Bowser, who established himself as a quality coverage linebacker.

Depth chart

Matthew Judon

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Skinny: Judon played the season on the franchise tag, worth $16.8 million, and while he didn’t replicate his sack numbers from 2019, he continued to prove his worth as a linebacker capable of stopping the run and dropping into coverage. With a second Pro Bowl nod and the Ravens’ limited cap room, Judon could join the list of ex-Ravens pass rushers who have played their way out of Baltimore.

Contract status: Judon, 28, is headed for unrestricted free agency. If the Ravens were to designate him with the franchise tag for a second straight season, they would owe him 120% of his 2020 salary.

Tyus Bowser

Skinny: Bowser didn’t grow into the pass rusher that the Ravens envisioned (two sacks) but the 2017 second-round pick showed his value in another area. He was perhaps the team’s best coverage linebacker, recording three interceptions, which trailed only cornerback Marcus Peters (four). Bowser might not command top dollar for an edge rusher but a team could take a chance on the rising player.

Contract status: Bowser, 25, is headed for unrestricted free agency.

Pernell McPhee

Skinny: Despite a triceps injury that derailed what was a solid start to the 2019 season, McPhee returned for 2020 and didn’t skip a beat as one of the defense’s veteran leaders. At 32, McPhee’s best days are behind him but he still provides a respected skillset as an edge rusher and an occasional interior rusher.

Contract status: McPhee is headed for unrestricted free agency.

Yannick Ngakoue

Skinny: Ngakoue raw numbers during his 11 games with the Ravens won’t blow anyone away, although advanced stats show that he was applying more pressure and getting to the quarterback at a faster rate than during his time in Minnesota. Regardless, as a former Pro Bowl selection and just 25 years old, he will likely seek a deal that might be out of the Ravens’ price range.

Contract status: Ngakoue is headed for unrestricted free agency.

Jihad Ward

Skinny: Ward was caught in a numbers game after the team acquired Ngakoue, inactive for four straight games and missing another while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But an eye-catching game against the Dallas Cowboys won the coaching staff over and he was active for six of the team’s final seven games, including the playoffs. On a defense built around versatility, Ward can play on the edge or slide inside for passing situations.

Contract status: Ward is headed for unrestricted free agency.

Jaylon Ferguson

Skinny: Ferguson was inactive for four of the team’s last six games, including the playoffs, but before the demotion was just slotted as another rotational option. With the Ravens likely to lose at least one outside linebacker in free agency, the team will need Ferguson to speed up his development.

Contract Status: Ferguson will make $850,000 in the third season of a four-year deal he signed as a fourth-round pick.

Offseason questions

1. Which of the young pass rushers, if any, do the Ravens prioritize in free agency?

The Ravens can’t feasibly keep all of their young pass rushers. But the real question is whether they can keep any at a team-friendly deal.

In Judon, the Ravens have a productive homegrown talent that would love to stay in Baltimore if the numbers are right. In Ngakoue, they have the best pure rusher of the bunch. And in Bowser, they have a steadily improving player with a welcomed skill set.

There’s a good chance Judon and Ngakoue price themselves out of the Ravens’ budget and history has shown that the Ravens will let a good edge rusher walk. Bowser is the type of player who would normally be due for a sizable pay increase but might have to settle for a smaller, shorter-term deal because of the depressed salary cap, which could ultimately work in the Ravens’ favor.

2. Are there any returning players capable of stepping into a significant role?

At Louisiana Tech, Ferguson passed former Raven Terrell Suggs as the NCAA’s all-time sack leader. But that success has yet to translate to the NFL, with 4 ½ sacks in 28 games.

While Ferguson is the only player who finished the season on the active roster set to return, the Ravens have players in Aaron Adeoye and Chauncey Rivers who spent the season on the practice squad and are primed for increased roles.

Adeoye and Rivers, both former undrafted free agents, were among the 10 call-ups for the game against the Steelers that was thrice postponed because of the team’s coronavirus outbreak. While unheralded, they have spent time in the organization and would have an inside track to making the 53-man roster if several spots open in the offseason.

3. Do the Ravens finally take an edge rusher in the first round?

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The Ravens have a proven track record of developing outside linebackers taken in the middle of the draft. McPhee, Paul Kruger and Za’Darius Smith have all departed Baltimore for expensive second contracts, and Judon is next in line.

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The last time the Ravens selected an edge rusher in the first round came in 2003, with the team taking Suggs at No. 10 overall. Over the past few years, the Ravens have typically picked toward the end of the first round, where premium options aren’t often in abundance. Luckily, this year’s draft has been regarded as a good one for pass rushers.

Potential additions

There aren’t many teams, the Ravens included, who will be able to enter a bidding war for pass rushers. Landing a player like Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett, or retaining Judon or Ngakoue on a deal that pays upwards of $15 million per year, is unlikely.

The Ravens could re-sign McPhee, Ward and maybe Bowser on modest short-term deals, but would have to target players such as the Arizona Cardinals’ Haason Reddick or the Las Vegas Raiders’ Tak McKinley, who fall in the second and third tier of available free agents.

The team has already been linked to several edge rushers in mock drafts. Prospects such as Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Texas’ Joseph Ossai are all options for the No. 27 overall pick.

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