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Ravens training camp preview: An instant impact, and a next step, expected for young linebackers

If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.

After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens are scheduled to report to Owings Mills next Tuesday. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener.

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The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s linebacker situation is analyzed.

Who’s back

OLB Matthew Judon: In 2019, Judon had a career year in a contract season, recording 9½ sacks and being voted to his first Pro Bowl. The Ravens designated Judon with the franchise tag and after failing to come to a long-term agreement ahead of the July 15 deadline, Judon will play under the $16.8 million tag.

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OLB Pernell McPhee: McPhee spent the first four years of his career with the Ravens. After four seasons with the Chicago Bears and Washington, the Ravens reunited with McPhee on a one-year deal, bringing a much-needed veteran presence to the position group. McPhee, 31, was a stout edge-setter and solid interior pass rusher but suffered a season-ending triceps injury in Week 7. The Ravens re-signed McPhee to a one-year deal in May.

OLB Tyus Bowser: After having little impact in his first two seasons in the NFL, Bowser had his best year to date, registering five sacks, which ranked second on the team. Entering a contract year, the Ravens will depend on the fourth-round pick from 2017 to make another stride in his development.

OLB Jaylon Ferguson: The Ravens selected Ferguson in the third round of the 2018 draft hoping his historic college production — Ferguson is the NCAA’s all-time sack leader with 45 — would translate to the NFL. Ferguson struggled to see the field early on, but McPhee’s season-ending injury opened an opportunity for him. Coaches said the mental side of the game slowed down for Ferguson as the season progressed and they’re expecting the production will follow for the 24-year-old nicknamed “Sack Daddy.”

OLB Jihad Ward: The Ravens signed Ward to a one-year deal in October 2019, seeking to shake up a defense that experienced early-season struggles. Ward, who also lines up at outside linebacker, quickly found a role as an edge-setter on early downs and interior rusher on passing downs. The Ravens resigned Ward, 26, to a one-year deal in March.

ILB L.J. Fort: Three games into the 2019 season, the Ravens signed Fort in another midseason pickup as they sought to improve the defense. Fort — and Josh Bynes, who has since signed with the Cincinnati Bengals — brought stability to the inside linebacker position and also contributed on special teams. Less than two months later, the Ravens and Fort agreed to a two-year extension through the 2021 season.

ILB Chris Board: Board made the 53-man roster in 2018 as an undrafted free agent out of North Dakota State and has almost exclusively contributed on special teams the past two seasons. With rookies Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in the mix, a third season on the roster likely depends on Board’s continued impact on special teams.

ILB Otaro Alaka: Alaka made the 53-man roster last year as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. He was inactive for the team’s first three games and placed on injured reserve in September with a hamstring injury.

OLB Aaron Adeoye: The Ravens signed Adeoye in May 2019 after a stint in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. Adeoye, 26, spent the 2019 season on the team’s practice squad.

Who’s new

ILB Patrick Queen: The Ravens addressed their thinnest position this offseason with their first pick in April’s draft, selecting LSU’s Queen with the 28th overall pick. Queen will be expected to join Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley from Day 1 in the lineage of great middle linebackers in franchise history. At 6 feet, 232 pounds, Queen fits the mold of a new-age, three-down linebacker capable of holding his own in the run, as well as matching up with running backs and tight ends in coverage.

ILB Malik Harrison: The 98th overall pick in April’s draft, Ohio State’s Harrison joins Queen in what coaches believe will be a formidable inside linebacker pair for years to come. Harrison has the measurables of an old-school linebacker (6 feet 3, 247 pounds), but coach John Harbaugh said Harrison will likely see time on the weak-side while Queen mans the middle linebacker spot.

OLB Chauncey Rivers: An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State, Rivers was a second-team All-Southeastern Conference defensive end last season. With the Ravens, he’ll likely have to show his potential as a run-stopping, strong-side linebacker.

ILB Kristian Welch: An undrafted free agent out of Iowa, Welch recorded a team-high 87 tackles as a senior in 2019.

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OLB John Daka: An undrafted free agent out of James Madison, Daka is the first Zambian since 1970 to join the NFL.

OLB Marcus Willoughby: An undrafted free agent out of Elon, Willoughby was named second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association last season.

What to watch

Last season’s early run at inside linebacker with now-New York Jets linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and Board didn’t go well, but give the Ravens front office and coaches credit for recognizing it early.

The team brought in Fort and Bynes to solidify the position and often played safety Chuck Clark at inside linebacker in dime packages. However, the team needed to further invest in the position and did so by drafting Queen and Harrison. The two will have to earn their roles on defense, but every indication is that they’ll be expected to contribute early and often.

No defense blitzed more than the Ravens, who brought pressure on 54.9% of drop-backs. That was more a testament to the team’s lack of bona fide pass rushers outside of Judon, rather than defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s affinity for harassing opposing quarterbacks.

The acquisition of veterans Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe should help with the team’s interior pass rush, but there’s still an opening opposite Judon for Bowser and Ferguson to make a greater impact.

X-factor

One day after the Ravens gave up over 500 yards in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs, Harbaugh publicly lamented the play of Bowser and fellow outside linebacker Tim Williams, two of the team’s 2017 draft picks.

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“They need to be better,” Harbaugh said at the time. “We need to get more pressure, more sacks from those guys. They’ll probably tell you they need more reps. I would say earn more reps.”

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A week later, Williams was cut, while Bowser’s snaps increased, more as a necessity after McPhee’s season-ending injury. Nonetheless, Bowser made the most of the opportunity, finishing second on the team in sacks and providing glimpses of the player coaches envisioned when the team selected him 47th overall out of Houston.

In recent years, Judon, McPhee and now-Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith have used career years in their fourth season to earn lucrative second contracts. Bowser looks to be the next player to do so.

Roster projection

Queen and Harrison are penned in as likely Day 1 starters, with Fort serving as a capable fill-in and special teams contributor. A fourth inside linebacker spot leans to special teams, where Board, a consistent special teams player the last two seasons, may have the inside track.

The Ravens have entered the past five seasons with five outside linebackers and figure to have that quintet set, rotating Judon, McPhee, Bowser, Ferguson and Ward.

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