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Ravens’ Tyus Bowser hopes to become team’s latest pass rusher to break out in fourth season

If Tyus Bowser wants to remind himself what’s at stake in his fourth season, he need only look back to the experience of a former teammate from his first two years with the Ravens.

Like Bowser, Za’Darius Smith wobbled through three uneven seasons as he sought to establish his NFL pass-rushing bona fides. In year four, he led the Ravens in sacks and earned a $66 million free-agent deal with the Green Bay Packers. In year five, he busted out as one of the league’s best defenders at any position.

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Such a trajectory is unusual for any player, but the soft-spoken Bowser has showed signs that he might become the latest Ravens pass rusher — after Smith, Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee — to make a leap with free agency approaching. He’s turned the heads of coaches and teammates over the first 10 days of full practices, pushing around linemen who outweigh him by 70 pounds and disrupting plays in the backfield. On Tuesday, he burst in to bat away a screen attempt from Lamar Jackson to Mark Ingram II.

Bowser is playing with an easy confidence that began to emerge in the second half of last season.

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“He’s very, very determined to be good,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who called Bowser out for falling short of expectations earlier in his career. “He’s probably his biggest own self-critic. I think he’s very hard on himself, which can be really good but sometimes, you’re too hard on yourself. So I see a confidence that, maybe last year, really started to come together. And now his confidence is 100%.”

Despite all the praise he’s received, the 25-year-old outside linebacker did not sound overly satisfied when discussing his performance on a video conference call with media members. He declined to say that this has been his best camp, though Harbaugh and others have said as much.

“I’m nowhere where I want to be,” he said. “I still have this standard that I want to get to. … I know it’s going to be a process, especially with how this camp is going. And I just want to take advantage of every practice, every snap that I get, to work on what I need to be the best.”

Such humble words have always been Bowser’s modus operandi.

But wavering self-belief was perhaps the greatest obstacle he faced in his first 2½ seasons with the Ravens. He had an Adonis physique and the wheels to reach the quarterback or drop into coverage, but the former second-round pick seemed to get tangled in his own misgivings every time he made a mistake. Coaches would lash at him for mental lapses, and he would recede.

Harbaugh threw down a gauntlet for Bowser and fellow young pass rusher Tim Williams as they faced make-or-break opportunities early last season. “We need to get more pressure, more sacks from those guys,” he said pointedly. “They’ll probably tell you they need more reps. I would say earn more reps by doing something about it.”

For Williams, the answer was break; the Ravens released the former third-round pick in October, a week after Harbaugh’s statement.

“I mean, I definitely noticed it, because he wasn’t in the room anymore,” Bowser said when asked if Williams’ release was a wake-up call. “You definitely take that into consideration, that you’ve got to come in every day and produce. This is a league where you come in and do your thing, and when you’re not consistent, when you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, they quickly replace you.”

Staring at his own reckoning, he found a reserve of inner strength. After playing just 19% of the team’s defensive snaps in Week 3 and 22% in Week 4, he played on at least 40% of defensive snaps in eight of the Ravens’ last nine games. With veteran edge rusher McPhee sidelined by a torn triceps, the team needed Bowser, and he held his own as the defense improved throughout a 12-game winning streak to close the season.

Bowser’s five sacks from 2019 won’t exactly earn him comparisons to Lawrence Taylor, but the total ranked second on the team, as did his 10 quarterback hits. And Bowser actually received a slightly higher Pro Football Focus grade than Matthew Judon, who easily led the Ravens in pass-rushing production.

It all added up to a modest but real step forward.

Now, the Ravens need Bowser to build on his progress. Judon is back, playing under the franchise tag, but the team did not add a significant edge rusher to its roster, unless you count defensive end Calais Campbell, who is more of an inside/outside hybrid. McPhee is also back for another season at age 31, but the Ravens felt that they leaned on the veteran for too many snaps before his injury last season. So Bowser will see the field plenty if he maintains his training-camp form.

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He’ll have his chance to join a line of players including Smith, McPhee and Kruger, who posted career-high sack totals in their fourth seasons with the Ravens and then cashed in.

“The expectations are high,” Harbaugh said. “He’s really, really worked. I see it on the practice field. He’s doing a lot of things really well. He’s setting the edge well. He’s pass rushing. He’s dropping into coverage. He’s working on special teams. So there’s a lot on his plate, and I feel like he’s been successful at every single thing he’s taken on.”

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