With the start of organized team activities Monday, the Ravens have mostly moved on from the talent-acquiring portion of the offseason. Now the time comes to start figuring out how well the team fits together.
The Ravens will conduct another eight days of OTAs through June 7, including one open to reporters Thursday. From June 11-13, they'll hold a mandatory minicamp for veterans. In late July, training camp kicks off.
The Ravens should have an improved offense as they seek their second straight AFC North title, but how will they fare on the other side of the ball? In the second of a two-part series examining whether the Ravens have upgraded or downgraded their roster — or whether it’s a push, just too close or too early to call — this is how the NFL’s reigning No. 1 defense stands.
Defensive line: Upgrade
The Ravens bring back all but one of their down linemen, starting defensive end Brent Urban, from a group that finished third in the NFL in yards per carry allowed and sixth in Football Outsiders’ rush-defense efficiency. And more help, old and new, is arriving.
The question remains whether the defense can get any pass-rush pressure from its line rotation. The Ravens will need it more than ever this season.
The biggest name up front is still defensive tackle Brandon Williams, whose salary cap hit rises above $14 million in 2019, second biggest on the team. He played nearly half of all defensive snaps last season and rated as one of the NFL’s better run stoppers. But Williams had just one sack after none in 2017 and one in 2016. The Ravens can account for that weakness on obvious passing situations, but they need more on toss-up downs.
His running mate inside, Michael Pierce, could be in line for the kind of mega-deal next spring that Williams signed two years ago. According to Pro Football Focus, Pierce has improved as an overall defender and run defender every year, and last season he ranked second in the NFL in run-stop percentage among interior defenders. No Ravens defender received a higher overall grade from the analytics website.
Another step forward this season could come as a pass rusher — he was held without a sack for the first time in his career in 2018 — or as a more regular on-field presence. Pierce actually played fewer defensive snaps than Chris Wormley last season, seeing the field only about 37.6% of the time.
Wormley is the heir apparent at defensive end for the Ravens; he starred as Michigan’s “anchor” defensive end, which has similar responsibilities, and gained experience behind Urban last season. The former third-round draft pick has a similar physical profile to Urban — coming in at 300 pounds, the same weight, and just 2 inches shorter. He could also project as a more disruptive pass rusher, though he has just one sack in his first two seasons.
Defensive tackle Willie Henry, who like Pierce is entering his final year under contract, remains an unknown quantity in the Ravens’ rotation. He didn’t play his rookie year. He had an impressive 3½ sacks in 2017, starting three games and appearing in 14. Last year, he missed the first four games while recovering from umbilical hernia surgery, then was sidelined for the final nine with a herniated disk. Coach John Harbaugh said this month that Henry’s back to health and that he expects “big things” from the former fourth-round pick.
Behind those four, the Ravens need to develop depth. Defensive tackle-fullback Patrick Ricard was inactive for the Ravens’ final six games last season. Defensive end Zach Sieler, a seventh-round pick in 2018, played in just two games. Fifth-round pick Daylon Mack could be an early contributor inside, and undrafted rookie tackle Gerald Willis has the talent to make the 53-man roster, too.
The New York Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr. The Pittsburgh Steelers did the same with Antonio Brown (and let Le’Veon Bell leave, too). The Kansas City Chiefs no longer have Dee Ford or Justin Houston.
In a matter of days, the defense lost its all-time sacks leader (Terrell Suggs), its All-Pro defensive anchor (C.J. Mosley) and its leading sack artist (Za’Darius Smith) in free agency. At both edge rusher and up the middle, the Ravens have rebuilding projects worthy of time on HGTV.
The pass-rush picture is especially worrisome. Last season, the Ravens finished tied for 11th in sacks (43) and sixth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. With the departure of Suggs (132½ sacks all time) and Smith (18½), the Ravens entered May with one player with double-digit sacks over his career, outside linebacker Matthew Judon (19).
Before signing outside linebackers Pernell McPhee (31 career sacks) and Shane Ray (14) for relatively cheap last week, the Ravens had a combined 51½ career sacks among players in their front-seven rotation, including linebacker-defensive back Anthony Levine Sr. That wasn’t a lot. Sixteen teams — half of the NFL — have a player (and in some cases two) with a higher career sacks total. Only the Miami Dolphins, regarded as one of the NFL’s worst teams entering next season, have fewer than 51½.
Judon will have every opportunity to build on his seven-sack 2018 season. Given the market for pass rushers and the approaching end of his contract, a big season this year could be his last in Baltimore. PFF rated Judon below Suggs and Smith last season, partly because of a poor coverage grade, but the Ravens need him buzzing into opponents’ backfields more than they do him shadowing running backs.
The Ravens have three day-two draft picks and another former first-round selection competing to start opposite Judon. Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams have yet to live up to the hype; in their two years in Baltimore, they’ve combined for 5½ sacks. Williams, especially, has struggled to get regular work, appearing in eight games as a rookie and just seven last season. Ray, the Denver Broncos’ top pick in 2015, had just one sack each of the past two years and ended last season as a healthy scratch.
The defense’s newest hope is third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, who broke Suggs’ Football Bowl Subdivision record for career sacks at Louisiana Tech. Harbaugh has lauded the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Ferguson’s positional flexibility; like McPhee, who projects as a situational pass rusher, he could fill a variety of roles in the Ravens’ range of defensive schemes.
At inside linebacker, the Ravens cannot replace Mosley with a top draft pick. They’ll turn to Patrick Onwuasor, a top performer late last season, and Kenny Young, a 2018 fourth-round pick who played about a third of the defense’s snaps.
It’s not hard to see how big a void Mosley has left. In 2016, when he missed two games because of injury, the former first-round pick finished with a career-low 92 tackles. The most Onwuasor has finished with in three NFL seasons is 90.
Onwuasor or Young might eventually surpass Mosley in coverage ability, a facet he sometimes struggled with, but the Ravens’ most pressing needs are leadership and IQ in the center of their defense. Mosley helped relay defensive play calls, organize the defense before the snap, and set a tone in the huddle and locker room. Onwuasor, entering the final year of his contract, has acknowledged he must embrace his new responsibilities as the position’s most senior veteran.
The Ravens’ highest-paid unit should also have the most star potential. But after finishing second in average passer rating allowed and third in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense efficiency last season, how much room for improvement is there?
Turnovers will be as important as staying healthy. For as well as the Ravens locked up passing attacks last season, only three players finished with more than one interception — Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey had two apiece — and the defense had 12 total, tied for 18th in the NFL.
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Free-agent signing Earl Thomas could be a savior. The former Seattle Seahawks star has more seasons with three-plus interceptions in his career (five) than he does two or fewer (four). He has had four "elite" seasons in the past five years, according to PFF.
When healthy, he should give the Ravens a deep-lying ball hawk whose presence can help safety Tony Jefferson thrive closer to the line of scrimmage. But the five-time All-Pro is coming off three straight seasons of leg injuries: a hamstring injury and broken tibia in 2016, a hamstring injury in 2017 and a left leg fracture last year. Eric Weddle, even at age 33, managed to lead the Ravens defense in snaps last season.
At cornerback is an intriguing mix of young and old. Carr, who turned 33 on Sunday, has started all 176 games over his 11-year NFL career. Smith, 31 in July, had his best performance of the year in the Ravens’ must-win regular-season finale. But neither was an elite cornerback — Smith, in particular, fell off last season, according to PFF — and performance tends to trend downward after age 30, often quickly.
There’s reason to believe Humphrey and Tavon Young are ascendant, though. Humphrey forced an incompletion on 22.5% of his targeted passes in 2018, the fourth-best rate in the NFL, according to PFF. A Pro Bowl-caliber season should be the expectation. Young, meanwhile, is now one of the league’s highest-paid slot cornerbacks and should continue to improve with more experience at the position. (He played mostly at outside cornerback as a rookie and missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL.)
Cornerback Anthony Averett could build on a promising rookie season that was limited in part by a nagging hamstring injury. Competing with him for snaps will be Maurice Canady, who must prove he’s healthy enough to play double-digit games, and rookie Iman Marshall, a 2019 fourth-round pick. Justin Bethel could help if needed but is primarily a special teams contributor.
Levine, used mainly in the Ravens' nickel and dime packages, expanded his role on defense last season, an unexpected breakout for a then-31-year-old mainly noted for his special teams expertise.
With Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, the Ravens have two inexperienced backups. Clark started twice last season but got single-digit or zero defensive snaps in 11 of 16 games overall. Elliott fractured his forearm in the preseason last year after flashing his physicality throughout his first NFL training camp.