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Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Defensive line

Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Defensive line
Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams answers questions at the team's mandatory minicamp. (Gail Burton / AP)

After more than a month of inactivity, football is approaching fast.

The Ravens’ first full-team training camp practice will be held Thursday. Their first preseason game is Aug. 8 against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. Final cuts for the 53-man active roster are due by 4 p.m. Aug. 31.

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Training camp will help shape the roster before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Dolphins in Miami. As practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster, including breakdowns of all 90 players. Today, the team’s defensive line situation is analyzed.

Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce faces a big season in the final year of his rookie contract.
Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce faces a big season in the final year of his rookie contract. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
One big question

Do the Ravens have enough young talent in their next generation? With Michael Pierce and Willie Henry in the final year of their rookie contracts, this will be a pivotal season for the team’s rookie defensive tackles. Pierce could be one of the top tackles available, and Henry might play himself into a lucrative deal. If Daylon Mack and Gerald Willis pan out, they could make a departure (or two) easier to stomach next offseason.

One smaller question

What will the Ravens’ best pass-rush alignment look like? Defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Pierce combined for one sack and three quarterback hits last season, while Henry has been the team’s most productive interior pass rusher when healthy. On obvious passing downs, the Ravens could also swap out a tackle and end for edge rushers, though there are fewer reliable options this year.

Defensive end Brandon Williams is a central figure on a deep Ravens defensive line.
Defensive end Brandon Williams is a central figure on a deep Ravens defensive line.
Projected starters

Michael Pierce: The story before mandatory minicamp was the defensive tackle’s rising value in the 2020 free-agent class. The story after it was Pierce’s dismissal from practice for poor conditioning. How the two threads merge over the next eight months will be fascinating.

Pierce earned Pro Football Focus’ best-ever grade for a Ravens interior defender last season, a period that dates to 2006, but averaged just under 28 defensive snaps per game last season. The year before, he averaged about 37 per game. Few of the NFL’s best-paid defensive tackles in 2018 played under 40 per game; just one of the top 15 in annual average salary, the Buffalo Bills’ Star Lotulelei (29.7 per game), was below 30.

Pierce’s low snap count is partly due to the team’s impressive depth up front. The Ravens should be strong up the middle again this year, maybe even stronger. But for any team interested in signing Pierce after this season, there will be some trepidation about committing tens of millions of dollars to a high-production, low-volume defensive tackle.

Brandon Williams: The Ravens’ second-highest-paid player is coming off a Pro Bowl season that, statistically speaking, was somewhat disappointing. Despite starting all 16 games and playing nearly half of the defensive snaps, Williams finished with one sack (his only quarterback hit) and two “stuffs” (a tackle for negative yardage on a running play), his fewest since his rookie season.

Over the past three seasons, Williams has just two sacks. He remains durable and and a strong, space-clogging run defender, but the $14 million-plus he’s owed each of the next three seasons is a salary typically reserved for disruptive pass rushers. Most of Williams’ peers in that upper crust have finished recent seasons with at least as many sacks as he has in his six-year career (5½).

Chris Wormley: With the departure of Brent Urban, the 2017 third-round pick is the prohibitive favorite to win the starting job at defensive end. Not much about his responsibilities may change. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will likely continue to play Wormley as a three-technique lineman, aligned on the outside shoulder of the opposing guard, and keep his snap count manageable. Wormley played between 20 and 40 defensive snaps in 12 games last season; Urban did so in 14, with his other two games above the threshold.

At Michigan, where he played a similar role along the line, Wormley twice finished with at least six sacks, but he’s shown only flashes of his pass-rush potential in two NFL seasons.

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, tackle Ronnie Stanley, and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during the stretch and warm up portion shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during mini camp at the Ravens' training facility Tue., June 11, 2019.
Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, tackle Ronnie Stanley, and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during the stretch and warm up portion shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during mini camp at the Ravens' training facility Tue., June 11, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Backups

Willie Henry: As an interior pass rusher, the 2016 fourth-round pick is the closest thing the Ravens have to free-agent target Gerald McCoy, who visited Baltimore before signing with the Carolina Panthers in June. After a lost rookie season, Henry had 3½ sacks in 597 defensive snaps in 2017 — a far cry from McCoy’s elite rate with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but promising nonetheless. Last year, with Henry sidelined most of the season by an umbilical hernia and then a herniated disk, his fellow Ravens linemen combined for just 2½ sacks. The defense needs Henry healthy and hunting again.

Daylon Mack: As a senior at Texas A&M, the defensive tackle finally started to play like the blue-chip prospect he’d once been billed as, starting 13 games and finishing with 10 tackles for loss and 5½ sacks. The Ravens took the 6-foot-1, 340-pound Mack in the fifth round and hope he can hold his own inside as a quality crew of veterans shows him the ropes.

Zach Sieler: The final pick of Ozzie Newsome’s tenure as Ravens general manager appeared in just two games last season, neither of which came after the team’s Week 10 bye. But the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Sieler has shown impressive strength in offseason workouts and should continue to improve as he learns how to leverage his great size at defensive end.

On the bubble

Gerald Willis: Widely expected to be drafted after an All-America season at Miami, the defensive tackle will instead enter his first NFL training camp as the Ravens’ most high-profile undrafted free agent in some time. A leg injury sidelined Willis for parts of the team’s offseason workouts, but he returned to participate in minicamp. Despite his winding path to the pros — Willis was dismissed from Florida early in his college career and took a leave of absence from the Hurricanes’ program in 2017 as he worked out personal issues — there are high hopes for Willis, who had 18 tackles for loss last season.

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