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Ravens pass rush will have a new look, but defensive front won’t get a total makeover

Eric DeCosta knew the Ravens were fortunate. They had so many edge rushers last season, sometimes the team didn’t have enough space on Sundays for Jaylon Ferguson, a 2019 third-round draft pick. Other times it couldn’t make space for the versatile and sneaky-productive Jihad Ward. In the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills, Yannick Ngakoue played just 20 snaps — and the defense didn’t suffer for it.

“We were six-deep this year,” the Ravens general manager said at his end-of-season news conference in January. “We had a stable of guys, and we could roll different guys out based on the teams that we were playing.”

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DeCosta went on to say: “We may not have that this year.”

The Ravens won’t have the same six-deep rotation they did in 2020, not after Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon agreed to a four-year deal with the New England Patriots, Ngakoue got a two-year contract from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Ward left for the Jacksonville Jaguars, all in a two-day span over the NFL’s legal tampering period.

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Barring a splashy free-agent signing or the arrival of an impact rookie, the Ravens won’t have the same depth and talent at the position in 2021, either. But it won’t be a total makeover. With Tyus Bowser agreeing to a four-year contract extension Tuesday ahead of the official start of free agency Wednesday afternoon, the Ravens kept one of their most versatile defenders and helped shore up a depleted group still lacking pass-rush playmakers.

A few hours later, they agreed to a three-year extension with Derek Wolfe, preserving the “Monstars” defensive line — tackle Brandon Williams and ends Calais Campbell and Wolfe — that anchored a much-improved Ravens run defense.

“We may have some turnover on the roster; we understand that,” DeCosta said in January. “Again, the salary cap sometimes dictates the players that you can have on the team, but we do see some opportunities to bring some guys back. There are certainly some guys we want to target out of the gates. We do feel that we have some younger players that have a lot of potential to help us.”

He didn’t name names, but Bowser was always a likely candidate at edge rusher. Ngakoue, for all his early-career production with the Jaguars and ties to Maryland, never found his place in the defense after a midseason trade. Tagging Judon again would’ve cost over $20 million, and the Ravens weren’t prepared to engage in a bidding war.

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Bowser’s four-year extension is worth $22 million, with another $5 million available in incentives, and $12 million guaranteed, according to SiriusXM’s Adam Caplan. Ngakoue’s deal averages $13 million annually, while Judon’s contract averages $14 million.

A former second-round draft pick, Bowser lacks their pass-rush bona fides; he had just two sacks last season and has 10 ½ total over four years in Baltimore. But he was one of the NFL’s top coverage linebackers last season, with three interceptions and five passes defended. According to Pro-Football-Reference, he gave up 10 completions on 15 targets for just 87 yards, allowing a 42.2 passer rating in coverage.

“I look at myself as just a football player, man,” Bowser, 25, said in December. “Whatever I have to do, whether that is dropping in coverage or rushing, I’m just there to do it. … I just try to do whatever I can to help the team, but just don’t look at me as just a coverage guy. I can actually get to the quarterback. Overall, I’m just a football player.”

His extension might’ve helped ease the sting of losing Ward, who finished with three sacks on just 169 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, one of the team’s best rates. Despite playing in just 10 games — he was a healthy scratch for five — Ward had 16 tackles and eight quarterback hits, his most since his rookie year, along with four tackles for loss, a career high.

With the departures of Judon, Ngakoue and Ward, the Ravens will lose 30.8% of their sack total and 31.1% of their pressure production from last season’s defense. Together, Bowser, Ferguson and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who finalized his one-year extension Tuesday, have combined for just 17½ sacks over the past two years.

Whomever the Ravens target at edge rusher in free agency or in the draft, DeCosta can at least count on continuity along an aging but effective defensive line. In announcing his return to Baltimore, Wolfe tweeted a GIF of the “Space Jam” Monstars, a callback to the cartoonish nickname of the team’s revamped and colorful defensive line. According to the NFL Network, Wolfe will earn $6.5 million in 2021 as part of a three-year, $12 million deal.

Because of injuries and the coronavirus, Williams, Campbell and Wolfe were on the field together at full strength only rarely in 2020, but they nonetheless bolstered a lacking run defense. The Ravens’ efficiency there improved from No. 21 overall to No. 12 in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.

Wolfe, 31, joined the Ravens on a one-year, prove-it deal last offseason after spending the first eight years of his career in Denver. In 14 games, including eight starts, he recorded 51 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack and six quarterback pressures. While his pass-rush production fell short of his numbers with the Broncos, Wolfe posted the highest run-defense grade for a Ravens defensive lineman in 2020, according to PFF.

In the postseason, Wolfe had a sack and six tackles as the Ravens limited Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry to just 40 yards in a comeback wild-card-round win.

“One of the best leaders I have ever seen,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Wolfe afterward. “Guys like that, in a sideline situation like that when you go down 10 [points], that’s what holds a team together.”

The Ravens will need more up front to win more than just one game in the playoffs. But a day after a pair of high-profile exits, the Ravens recommitted to the defense that had helped make the postseason appearance possible.

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