The Ravens, maybe more than any NFL team, know the value of undrafted free agents. Justin Tucker was undrafted. So was Bart Scott. And Anthony Levine Sr. and Matt Skura and Patrick Ricard, among many others. For the past 16 years, at least one undrafted rookie has made the team’s initial 53-man roster, the league’s second-longest streak.
This offseason, the Ravens made space for a big class. Even after taking 10 players in last month’s draft, general manager Eric DeCosta filled out his roster with another 21 undrafted free agents. The team’s roster is considered one of the league’s strongest, with Pro Bowl players returning on offense, defense and special teams, but there might be space for another new name.
Who could be this year’s Patrick Mekari? The Baltimore Sun reached out to college coaches for insights on some of the team’s higher-profile undrafted rookies.
Inside linebacker Kristian Welch
A two-way standout and three-star recruit in high school, Welch was the big man on campus when he left for Iowa. Which wasn’t saying much. Wisconsin’s Iola-Scandanavia is “a very, very, very small high school,” said his recruiter, Hawkeyes assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Seth Wallace. Small enough that Welch said he was one of 52 students in his graduating class. (The Ravens’ initial roster in 2020 will have 53 players.)
At Iowa, Welch was one of two true freshmen to play in 2016, but Wallace said his small-school experience had him playing catch-up. “He came with probably a lesser foundation, from a football standpoint,” he said. It didn’t start to click for Welch, Wallace said, until his junior season, when he made his first career start — as a weak-side linebacker.
Welch’s command of Iowa’s 4-3 defense was even more obvious last year, when he started 10 games at middle linebacker, his more natural position. In a two-game stretch last November, he matched his career high with 11 tackles in a win over Minnesota, then topped it the next week with 12 against Illinois. He ended the season with a team-high 87 tackles despite missing three games because of a stinger, and had 1½ tackles for loss in each of the Hawkeyes’ final four games.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him, to be honest with you,” said Wallace, who called Welch’s work ethic “as good as anybody that I’ve been around.” And he’s helped coach up some pretty good Iowa linebackers: the Kansas City Chiefs’ Ben Niemann, the Denver Broncos’ Josey Jewell and even Amani Hooker, a safety for the Minnesota Vikings who played a hybrid role in college.
Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz pushed for an NFL scouting invitation, but none came for Welch. Then the coronavirus pandemic forced Iowa to cancel its Pro Day, scuttling another opportunity. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Welch told reporters before the draft last month that his personal-best time in the three-cone drill was 6.58 seconds, a quarter-second faster than the quickest linebacker at the combine.
“His movement skills and his measurables are probably well above average, especially for his size,” said Wallace. He called Welch’s predraft misfortune “really the story of Kristian's career, to be honest with you. He's always fallen behind, for one reason or another.”
Wallace said Welch’s ticket to an NFL roster this year will have to be his play on special teams, where he’ll “put his nose down and he’ll do an outstanding job, because he’s a size-speed guy.” That was how his career started at Iowa, Wallace said.
By the time it ended, though, Welch was a linchpin on the Hawkeyes’ 12th-ranked defense. One play in particular sticks out to Wallace. It came in the game against Minnesota, a nationally televised top-20 showdown. Late in the second quarter, with host Iowa up big and the Golden Gophers driving, Welch made a “very tough read” on a play-action pass.
“It looked like a blitz,” Wallace said, “but it wasn't a blitz.” Welch whipped around the chipping tight end and flew in for the sack. Three plays later, Minnesota was punting from its own 33-yard line. Iowa ended up winning by four.
“That might've been the best play of his career at Iowa,” Wallace said. “Those are the things that stand out to me, where things started to click for him. But it was all because of just the way he approached the game of football and the game of life.”
Outside linebacker Chauncey Rivers
There was a Chauncey Rivers whom Deke Adams never met. That Rivers was dismissed from Georgia in 2016 after his third marijuana-related arrest in seven months, then spent a year at “Last Chance U” school East Mississippi Community College, then sat out Mississippi State’s 2017 season after being ruled academically ineligible.
The Rivers whom Adams got to know during his lone season as the Bulldogs’ defensive line coach? He was “great.” Great on the field — a second-team All-Southeastern Conference defensive end — and great off it, too. First one in the building, Adams said, and last one out.
“He was great with our younger guys,” recalled Adams, now the defensive line coach at Mississippi. “Even the younger guys at the position. When I'm coaching some of the guys ... he might be behind me talking to the young guys, explaining it a little bit more on what we're trying to get accomplished and what we're trying to do. So he's always been great at doing that.”
Now he’ll likely have to learn a new position. The 6-2 Rivers played last season at a listed 275 pounds. At the combine, he weighed in at 262. During the predraft process, Adams said Rivers saw himself more as an outside linebacker than as a true 4-3 defensive end, which he played at Mississippi State.
In Baltimore, he’ll likely line up as a strong-side outside linebacker, where his run-stopping pedigree will be better served.
“We never questioned whether he could set the edge, because he's physical,” Adams said. “He dominated tight ends. He did a great job with tackles in being able to set the edge of a defense and send the ball back inside.”
Rivers rarely came off the field, so the Bulldogs asked him to do a whole lot more. He led the team with five sacks and ranked 11th in the SEC among edge defenders in total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Rivers normally rushed from a five-technique alignment, positioned over a tackle’s outside shoulder, but Adams said he was “a guy that we could move around if we wanted to.”
In short-yardage situations, he’d line up in a “bear” front, a scheme that typically covers a line’s guards and center with three defensive linemen. He’d also drop into coverage. Adams said Mississippi State’s staff “felt like he could do everything within the defense.”
“He's done all the things that they'll ask him to do, and once he learns the system, he's going to be 100 to nothing — 100 mph from the very beginning,” Adams said. “But once he truly learns the system and it clicks, then it's hard to stop him, because he is a natural football player.”
Rivers did not test especially well at the combine; his marks in the 40-yard dash, bench press, three-cone drill and vertical jump were unimpressive for an edge defender. He was also too valuable to play much on special teams as a senior. But Adams said Rivers should be willing and able, and that “there's no doubt in my mind that he has the tools” to make a 53-man roster.
“He's going to step into the locker room and he's not going to shy down from going against whoever it is that you put him up against,” Adams said. “He has that type of confidence in himself, and it's not an arrogance or anything like that. But he has the type of confidence that he's going to work his butt off, and, hey, you might get him once, but you're going to have to line up and do it again, because he's going to keep coming.”
Fullback Bronson Rechsteiner
If Rechsteiner indeed projects as a fullback in the Ravens offense, he won’t look a lot like starter Patrick Ricard. He’ll be closer to another Pro Bowl predecessor.
According to the team’s roster, Ricard has 3 inches and over 80 pounds on the 6-foot, 230-pound Rechsteiner. But size alone shouldn’t be disqualifying: 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a four-time Pro Bowl selection over his seven years in Baltimore and San Francisco, is 6-1 and 235 pounds.
Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said Rechsteiner, the son of former professional wrestler Rick Steiner, has “definitely got all the skill sets to do it.”
"He's just going to have to go execute it,” he said. “He's going to have to learn the playbook and be able to go execute at a high level. When they've got 90 kids on the roster and they're trying to get to, what, 53, it's pretty damn competitive. So he's going to have to learn what to do and go execute at a high level in the moments. He can do that. We know he can do it."
Rechsteiner is joining a unique Ravens attack, but he’s coming from one, too. He lined up as a fullback in the Owls’ triple-option offense, a Navy lookalike that led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing (342.4 yards per game) and ranked second in yards per carry (6.3).
In a breakout senior season, Rechsteiner had 112 carries for a team-high 909 yards (8.1 per attempt) and seven touchdowns. He also had eight catches for 101 yards, modest totals in a normal offense but impressive in the Owls’ system. (The team’s top receiver was a running back who had a team-high 15 catches for 370 yards.)
Ricard has been an effective check-down option in the Ravens’ passing attack, catching eight of 11 targets for 47 yards and a touchdown last season, but he’s most valuable as a run blocker. Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s speed creates problems, but Ricard creates extra gaps in the team’s run schemes.
Rechsteiner has experience as a lead blocker, but Bohannon said he’s “going to have to be able to match the speed of the game.” Just as important, he has to know what he’s doing.
"The blocking, he improved tremendously here,” Bohannon said. “I think that’s going to be huge for him there, because the role, whatever it is, may not have as many touches to it. But it’s going to have a role of being able to fit up and block some people. He’s going to have to continue to grow in those areas as he did here. ...
“I don't know exactly how they're going to use him, but he's probably going to fit in a myriad of ways. I think blocking at that level is going to be a really big thing for him. He did a lot of that for us, and I think that will help him. But his ability to run and his athleticism are going to help him. He's strong. He gets his hands on you, and he's just strong."
Outside linebacker John Daka
When coach Curt Cignetti and defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman arrived at James Madison last year, they made their defensive line the unit’s centerpiece. Previous Dukes teams were maybe more linebacker-centric, Cignetti said. They also didn’t have John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter as established pass-rushing stars.
“With what Corey does, with what we do, it’s all about the front,” Cignetti said. “Disruption up front, penetration, get-off, sacks, TFLs [tackles for loss]. Maybe in the past, it was a little bit more not quite as aggressive attacking up front.”
The two Maryland products helped lead James Madison to a 14-2 record and its third FCS final in four years. Carter, a Long Reach graduate and Rutgers transfer, was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year after posting 27 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. But Daka, who went to Prince George’s County’s Wise High School, was just as productive: 28 tackles for loss and 16½ sacks, both FCS bests, and four forced fumbles.
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He’s studied NFL stars Von Miller and Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland), and he won much the same way they do: with speed off the edge.
“His quickness off the ball, he's a hard guy to block,” Cignetti said. “He's a guy that you didn't have to do a lot of [pass-rush] games with to free up. He could beat a guy one-on-one, just because of his speed and quickness. He's hard to block. He's really twitched up. I mean, he could come off the edge.”
Daka played at a listed 227 pounds last year in James Madison’s 4-3 scheme, but he’s since bulked up to 240. Cignetti said some teams were evaluating Daka as a designated pass rusher, but that only “time will tell” what his ideal playing weight will be.
Because of his importance to the team, Daka didn’t play much on special teams last year. Cignetti said James Madison added him to its punt block team just once all season, in a blowout win against Monmouth — and, he added with a chuckle, Daka blocked the punt.
“He can really run,” Cigenetti said. “He’s a run-and-hit guy, so I would think on coverage units, he could be very effective.”