Ravens positional review: Defensive line

The defensive line has been a traditional area of strength for the Ravens, and that was true again in 2018. They ranked fourth in the league in run defense, largely because of the trench work performed by their deep core of interior linemen. The Ravens will count on a similar performance in 2019, but they do have long-term questions to answer at the position.

2018 in review

The Ravens continued to exploit the luxury of rotating their massive defensive tackles, Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce, and kept both players fresh deep into the season.


In the second season of his five-year, $52.5 million free-agent deal, Williams maintained his status as one of the league’s most reliable run defenders and was rewarded with his first trip to the Pro Bowl. The 30-year-old started all 16 games for the third time in four seasons and led the team’s interior linemen in total snaps. Critics will always ding Williams for being a part-time player who cannot deliver the pass-rush production of the elite stars at his position — Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox and Akiem Hicks. But he’s given the Ravens what they signed up for when they committed to him as a centerpiece of the defense.

Pierce arguably outplayed him in 2018, albeit in 156 fewer snaps. The scouting website Pro Football Focus graded Pierce a top-10 interior lineman, marking him as one of the NFL’s elite run defenders and a better pass rusher than Williams. His grades have improved steadily over his three seasons, making the former undrafted free agent one of the biggest bargains in the league. The only knock on Pierce is that he doesn’t play nearly as many snaps as the players around him in the Pro Football Focus rankings.


Defensive end Brent Urban didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but he had the best and healthiest season of his five-year career, starting all 16 games. Pro Football Focus graded Urban as one of the top 25 run defenders among interior linemen who played at least 300 snaps. He nearly led the team’s interior linemen in total snaps, falling two behind Williams. At a cost of $1.1 million, he was a bargain.

Defensive tackle Chris Wormley also took a step forward in his second season, playing 426 snaps and demonstrating the versatility to slot in anywhere along the line. He impressed Ravens coaches with his increased strength and explosiveness. His 16 tackles and one sack won’t have anyone dreaming of future Pro Bowl appearances, but Wormley proved he can be a solid professional after failing to make a strong impression in his rookie season.

Eric Weddle, 34, was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons with the Ravens.

Defensive tackle Zach Sieler made the team as a seventh-round pick out of Ferris State but was a staple on the game-day inactive list for most of the season.

If the group had a clear weakness, it was the lack of a top-notch interior pass rusher. Willie Henry seemed the best candidate after a breakout in 2017, but his season was derailed by a back injury that forced the Ravens to put him on injured reserve in October. Henry was either ready to play or close by the end of the season, but the Ravens couldn’t consider bringing him off IR because they had used their options on other players. He played just 82 total snaps on the season.

2019 outlook

Pierce is a restricted free agent, and the Ravens could offer him a second-round tender (which would cost $3.095 million for 2019) to scare off any potential suitors. If he delivers another season like 2018, he’ll be in line for a substantial free-agent deal, and it will be interesting to see if the Ravens move aggressively to lock him down.

Some prospects rose out of the Ravens’ first-round range, while others might have entered the team's radar.

The Ravens might consider cutting Williams after the 2019 season, especially if they commit to Pierce long-term. They could save $9.25 million on their 2020 salary cap if they released or traded the veteran after June 1. But such talk is premature and should not affect the team’s outlook for next season. The Ravens will again count on Williams and Pierce to anchor their defense, and there’s no reason to believe either player is headed for a decline year.

Urban is an unrestricted free agent, but given his solid play in 2018 and lack of glamour stats to attract bidders, he could be back in Baltimore on another modest contract. The Ravens have areas of greater need as they assess their offseason spending plans, so an affordable known quantity such as Urban makes sense for them.

Wormley will be back, looking to build on his progress in 2018, and the Ravens will hope for a bounce-back season from Henry. If they get it, they will add a significant contributor without having to pay for him on the open market.

This is one area of the team where the Ravens would do well simply by maintaining the status quo in 2019.

Free-agent options

There’s plenty of star power at the top of the free-agent class with defensive tackles such as Ndamukong Suh and Sheldon Richardson. It’s just hard to see the Ravens shopping in that neighborhood when they already have Williams and have Pierce’s future compensation to consider. The same could be said for the next tier of players, which includes Henry Anderson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Darius Philon.

The Ravens have greater need for an edge rusher with linebacker Za’Darius Smith hitting free agency and linebacker Terrell Suggs nearing the end of his career, even if he does re-sign with the Ravens for 2019. But pass-rushing defensive ends are some of the most expensive players on the market, and given the Ravens’ history of free-agent frugality, it’s hard to see them chasing the best available player, Trey Flowers. Most of the top pass rushers (Frank Clark, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney and Dee Ford) were snatched from the open market when their teams slapped them with franchise tags.

The crop of edge defenders is so deep that it’s conceivable the Ravens could chase second-tier options such as Ezekiel Ansah, Dante Fowler Jr. or Alex Okafor. But they’ll be relatively expensive as well because most of the elite talents were franchised. They’d likely prefer to find a long-term successor to Suggs in the draft, a quest that has proved elusive.

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