This is a moment of flux for the Ravens’ linebacker corps, with two of the team’s signature characters, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, set to hit the open market this week. General manager Eric DeCosta has said he’d like to re-sign both pending free agents, and if that happens, we could see only modest change for a group that generally performed well last season. But if Mosley, Suggs and Za’Darius Smith all depart, the Ravens would be in for a sweeping rebuild.
2018 in review
Mosley, 26, is the centerpiece of the linebacker group and in many ways, the entire defense. He delivered another solid season, especially as a run defender, and played his best at the end of the year, when the Ravens had to win every game to make the playoffs. It was fitting that his quick-reaction interception against the Cleveland Browns clinched that postseason ticket. He made his fourth Pro Bowl in five seasons and, along with recently released safety Eric Weddle, called the signals for the defense. Mosley has rarely made much impact as a pass rusher and has been inconsistent in coverage, but he’s still one of the top players in the league at his position.
Next to him at weak-side linebacker, incumbent Patrick Onwuasor and rookie Kenny Young opened the season in fierce competition for snaps. Young, an excellent all-around athlete, seemed to have the advantage as the Ravens approached midseason. But Onwuasor, a former college safety who surprised many observers by winning a starting job in 2017, seized it back and finished the season as one of the team’s most important defensive playmakers. According to grades from the scouting website Pro Football Focus, Onwuasor was a below-average run defender but very good in coverage and as a pass rusher. Young was better against the run, but sometimes got lost in coverage despite his nimble feet. He nonetheless succeeded by establishing himself as a potential NFL starter as a rookie.
On the edge, Smith produced the best season of his career as he approached unrestricted free agency, leading the team with 8½ sacks and establishing himself as the inside-outside rusher the Ravens had envisioned when they drafted him. He came through with 1½ sacks and four quarterback hits in the team’s Week 16 demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers and managed at least one quarterback hit in 12 of 16 games.
Third-year linebacker Matthew Judon wasn’t as consistent as Smith, getting off to a slow start for the second straight season. But he delivered several huge games during the Ravens’ 6-1 run after their bye week. Judon sacked the quarterback on three straight plays in a 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders and piled up five quarterback hits in a three-point road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs — reminders that at his best, he can be the most dominant defender on the field. The Ravens view the 6-foot-3, 261-pound Judon not just as a pass rusher but as an all-around linebacker who can play effectively in space. That said, Pro Football Focus gave him a below-average grade in coverage for 2018.
Coaches raved about Suggs’ conditioning heading into his 16th NFL season, and the future Hall of Fame candidate started all 16 games. He played well to start the season, with 5½ sacks and nine tackles for loss through the first seven games. Over the last nine games, however, Suggs produced just 1½ sacks and 10 solo tackles. He returned a fumble for a touchdown and made the occasional terrific read to break up a pass, but went long stretches without marking the box score at all. Pro Football Focus nonetheless gave him solid grades as both a pass rusher and run defender, impressive for a 36-year-old who led the team’s outside linebackers in total snaps.
Second-year linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams never progressed the way the Ravens hoped they would. Williams showed his pass-rushing promise during the preseason, but did not play after Week 8 as the coaching staff lost faith in him. Bowser at least remained part of the team’s weekly plans, but he earned the ire of coaches with his lapses on defense and special teams.
The Ravens face several huge questions that could be answered over the next week. If Mosley re-signs, their defensive identity will remain largely intact. If he doesn’t, they’ll suddenly be forced to hunt for a new middle linebacker to lead a defense that allowed the fewest yards and second fewest points in the NFL last season. Mosley isn’t Ray Lewis, but he’s about as good a spiritual and on-field successor as the Ravens could have hoped for when they drafted him in the first round in 2014.
Onwuasor, 26, is a restricted free agent who made a strong case for himself as a rising big-play force in the second half of last season. The Ravens reportedly gave him a second-round tender (worth a projected $3.095 million) to dissuade other teams from pursuing him. Assuming they keep him around to pair with Young, they should be set at weak-side linebacker.
That’s far from the case at outside linebacker where Smith’s free-agent stock has risen after several teams used their franchise tags to pull elite pass rushers off the free-agent market. Given their history of frugality with edge defenders such as Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger, it would be a surprise if the Ravens dug deep to re-sign Smith. But he will leave a hole if he goes to another team, one that won’t be cheap or easy to fill.
Suggs has said he wants to play again in 2019, and the Ravens seem interested in keeping him on what would likely be a short, modest deal. That would make sense given Suggs’ standing in the locker room and the fact he remained an above-average player at age 36. The Ravens just can’t count on him to be an every-down, every-game force going forward.
They hope Judon, 26, will take another step forward and become that in 2019. He has every physical tool needed along with an assertive personality and sense of community. He also has a powerful incentive with unrestricted free agency looming after next season.
The Ravens would love to receive substantial production from Bowser or Williams, but after two underwhelming seasons from each, they can’t depend on it.
Mosley is the top target, and we’ll soon find out if the Ravens erred when they decided not to use their franchise tag to keep him off the market. If Mosley signs elsewhere, there are some decent free-agent options. The Browns just released Jamie Collins, and though he’s generally thought of as a 4-3 linebacker rather than a classic middle linebacker like Mosley, he’s a versatile, productive player. The same could be said for Anthony Barr. Among the purer middle linebackers, top-notch run defender Jordan Hicks is the best of the bunch. Versatile and consistent veteran K.J. Wright is another appealing target.
Whether Suggs re-signs or not, the Ravens need another edge rusher. But DeCosta often talks about the difficulty of finding good value at the position on the open market. If they did go shopping for an outside linebacker, Barr, Shaquil Barrett and Markus Golden have all excelled as pass rushers, and Preston Smith is a versatile player.