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Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Linebacker

Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Linebacker
Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor celebrates after a second-quarter tackle during the team's AFC wild-card loss to the Chargers. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

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. Training camp will help shape the roster before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Dolphins in Miami.

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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 offensive line situation is analyzed.

Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor talks about the first two days of their offseason workout at the Under Armour Performance Center.
Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor talks about the first two days of their offseason workout at the Under Armour Performance Center. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
One big question

Who will inherit C.J. Mosley’s defensive snaps? The Ravens’ longtime rock at middle linebacker played 100% of the defensive snaps in all but three games last season. His ability as a presnap communicator, capable coverage and prowess as a run defender made him an essential middle-of-the-field general. Now, though, he plays for the New York Jets. Will the Ravens ask Patrick Onwuasor to handle a similar workload, or is a committee approach more sensible?

One smaller question

Will the Ravens remain blitz-happy — and will it be effective? According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens blitzed on an NFL-high 39% of their snaps last season — and were the fifth-most efficient defense in such situations. With the departure of pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale might have to recalibrate his strategy.

The Ravens' Matt Judon, right, reaches for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for a sack in the fourth quarter last season.
The Ravens' Matt Judon, right, reaches for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for a sack in the fourth quarter last season. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
Projected starters

Matthew Judon: The presumptive starter at one of the Ravens’ two outside linebacker positions has been mostly excluded from rankings of next year’s top free-agent edge rushers. It is a loaded class: Jadaveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence, Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland), Frank Clark and Vic Beasley, to name just a few.

But Judon has been remarkably productive since landing in Baltimore. His 19 sacks are the fifth most among players drafted in 2016. According to TeamRankings.com, only eight players have more tackles for loss than Judon (29) over the past two years.

Judon’s far from a finished project — he’s never been a ratings darling, and last season graded out poorly in coverage — but there’s no one ahead of him on the depth chart this season. If he takes “the next step,” as coach John Harbaugh has said he must, Judon will be the Ravens’ next homegrown pass rusher to strike it rich.

Patrick Onwuasor: The heir apparent to Mosley at middle linebacker also looks nothing like the NFL’s highest-paid player at the position. Mosley stands 6 feet 2, 250 pounds, the old-school archetype for an off-ball linebacker; Onwuasor is listed at 6-0, 225 pounds, a lighter but faster iteration.

The converted safety was one of the Ravens’ top playmakers at the end of last season, finishing with three sacks, two forced fumbles and 20 tackles over their final three games, including their playoff loss. Most impressive was Onwuasor’s pass-rush productivity as a weak-side linebacker. He finished with 5½ sacks last season — only two inside linebackers had more, barely — and racked them up with almost alarming ease.

According to Pro Football Focus, Onwuasor had a sack every 11.5 pass-rush snaps. The Tennessee Titans’ Jayon Brown and Detroit Lions’ Jarrad Davis, the inside linebackers who finished with a position-high six sacks, averaged one every 17.2 and 21.2 pass-rush snaps, respectively.

Kenny Young: The fourth-round pick showed good promise as a rotational linebacker in his rookie year. While Young had his missteps in pass coverage, as most rookies do, he finished with 2½ sacks — more than he had as a senior at UCLA — and contributed on special teams. With his athletic profile, Young has the highest upside of any contender at weak-side linebacker, and he flashed his potential during Mosley’s injury-related absence early last season, totaling 18 tackles over two nearly full games.

Tim Williams: The 2017 third-round pick didn’t see the field after October, including a monthlong stretch as a healthy scratch. Williams was a productive pass rusher in his limited action — he had two sacks over 119 snaps and seven games, an impressive rate that far surpassed that of Smith (team-high 8½ sacks) — but he fell short in other areas. Harbaugh has both called out and publicly supported Williams since last season, saying he expects “big things.” First, though, Williams has to earn snaps.

The Ravens' Tyus Bowser shows off a few of his dance moves before the game.
The Ravens' Tyus Bowser shows off a few of his dance moves before the game.
Backups

Chris Board: After a strong showing on special teams as an undrafted free agent, the inside linebacker is poised to contribute on defense. Board, who led the Ravens in special teams snaps and special teams tackles last season, played sparingly at linebacker as a rookie. But he split first-team repetitions during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp and was “playing like a starter,” Harbaugh said. At North Dakota State, Board started at both strong-side and weak-side linebacker.

Tyus Bowser: The 2017 second-round pick is coming off a relatively quiet offseason, but he might be better off entering training camp without any hype. Last year, after Bowser impressed throughout mandatory minicamp, linebackers coach Mike Macdonald said he’d been “probably our most productive ’backer, in terms of just sacks and interceptions and that sort of thing.”

The buzz fizzled out quickly. Bowser ended his second season with almost the same limited share of defensive snaps and had fewer sacks, quarterback hits, interceptions and passes defended than as a rookie. He also struggled somewhat on special teams, where he saw most of his action. Athletically, Bowser looks the part, but it’s still unclear what role he could thrive in.

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Jaylon Ferguson: The third-round pick was part of what defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale called “the best pass-rush interview I’ve ever had." Ferguson’s stats already spoke for themselves: At Louisiana Tech, he broke Terrell Suggs’ Football Bowl Subdivision record for career sacks with 45. Harbaugh said after the draft that team officials envision the 6-5, 275-pound Ferguson as a rush linebacker, the position Suggs manned in Baltimore — strong enough to set the edge and explosive enough to rush the passer. Coming from Conference USA, he’ll need some time to acclimate to the skill and strength of NFL linemen.

Pernell McPhee: The former Ravens outside linebacker has struggled since leaving Baltimore four years ago. After signing a big-money contract with the Bears and posting a 12-start, six-sack season in 2015, a bad stretch of injuries (knee and shoulder) and production (just four sacks in 2016 and 2017) followed in Chicago. In 13 games last season with the Washington Redskins, he had 11 tackles and no sacks, as well as eight quarterback hits.

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With a burly frame similar to that of Smith, McPhee could line up over guards as a situational pass rusher. But at age 30, he won’t be able to replace him.

Ravens linebacker Shane Ray warms up before practice in Owings Mills.
Ravens linebacker Shane Ray warms up before practice in Owings Mills. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
On the bubble

Otaro Alaka: The undrafted free agent led Texas A&M last season with 79 tackles, including 14½ for loss, and was the highest-rated Southeastern Conference linebacker in run defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Alaka has good measurables for an inside linebacker but still needs to show a nose for the ball.

E.J. Ejiya: The undrafted free agent was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season for North Texas, posting 121 tackles, including 25 for loss (nine sacks). Despite Ejiya’s production and high motor, there were concerns before the draft about his limited potential.

Shane Ray: The outside linebacker, a 2015 first-round pick of the Broncos, saw his time in Denver end on a down note. In 11 games last season, Ray finished with one sack and played just 23.5% of the defense’s snaps, both career lows. For the Broncos’ final three games, he was a healthy scratch.

Perhaps no body part this training camp will be more monitored than his left wrist, which has already undergone three operations. If Ray can return to his 2016 form, when he had eight sacks and 21 quarterback hits, his one-year, $1.2 million deal will have been good business for both sides.

Birmingham Iron defensive end Aaron Adeoye (58) knocks the ball loose from San Diego Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici (11) for a fumble in the second half Sunday, March 17, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.
Birmingham Iron defensive end Aaron Adeoye (58) knocks the ball loose from San Diego Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici (11) for a fumble in the second half Sunday, March 17, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego. (Peter Joneleit / AP)
Long shots

Aaron Adeoye: The former Alliance of American Football defensive end had half a sack for the Birmingham Iron last season. The 6-6, 260-pound Adeoye played college basketball at Ball State and Western Kentucky before finishing his career at Southeast Missouri State, where he also made the football team.

Alvin Jones: Waived on cut-down day as an undrafted free agent last year, he rejoined the Ravens in mid-October as a practice squad inside linebacker. Jones, whose brother, Aaron, is a running back for the Green Bay Packers, is the defense’s only linebacker under 6 feet.

Markus Jones: The undrafted free agent was named the Ron Lenz Defensive Player of the Year in the Division II Conference Commissioner’s Association after leading all divisions of college football with 36½ tackles for loss last season. As a 6-3 defensive end, Jones also set Angelo State’s single-season sack record (17½). Despite his mediocre athleticism, many expected Jones to be drafted.

Michael Onuoha: The undrafted free agent is a former four-star Oklahoma recruit who earned Division II All-America honorable mention at Texas A&M Commerce in 2017. The 6-5, 255-pound Onuoha had a career-high 14½ tackles for loss and 6½ sacks last season, but he’ll need a more refined approach as an edge rusher at the professional level.

Silas Stewart: The undrafted free agent had 94 tackles, including seven for loss, last season for Football Championship Subdivision school Incarnate Word. Stewart, a Delaware native, is speedy enough in coverage but lacks ideal strength and size for an inside linebacker.

Matthew Thomas: The former Steeler signed a reserve-future contract with the Ravens in January after ending the season on Pittsburgh’s practice squad. Despite leading Florida State in tackles in 2017 and 2018, he went undrafted last year, with scouts critical of the former five-star recruit’s instincts and on-field impact.

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