Coming into the off-season, the Baltimore Ravens pass rush was their most intriguing position group. They had multiple free agents coming off of solid seasons and needed to find a handy way to solidify the group.
The remastering began with a small teardown. Baltimore’s two most productive pass rushers in 2018, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, were both allowed to walk in free agency. The duo accounted for 15.5 sacks and 40 quarterback hits. With these two leaving, it was widely speculated the Ravens would make a run for a different pass rusher to nurse their losses in free agency. They then took a swing at signing former pro-bowler Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah would bypass the Ravens to sign with the Seattle Seahawks.
Baltimore then looked to the draft and beyond to bring in more bodies to a depleted position. Though they had a glaring need on the edge, Eric DeCosta decided to address the receiver position with the Ravens first selection. The Ravens weren’t on the clock again until the third round. Here, DeCosta elected to select a pass rusher in Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson. Ferguson was the only outside linebacker the Ravens selected in their draft but would pick up two others in Michael Onuoha from Texas A&M-Commerce and Markus Jones from Angelo State. To finish, DeCosta brought back a familiar face with the re-signing of Pernell McPhee while also signing free agent in Shane Ray.
Going into 2019, there are significantly more questions with the pass rush than in previous years. Suggs had been the heart of the defense since Ray Lewis‘ retirement in 2013 and it will be interesting to see how Baltimore responds without his presence on the field and in the locker room. Here’s a preview of the Ravens pass rush going into the 2019 season.
An Early Look at the 2019 Baltimore Ravens Pass Rush
The Anchor: Matt Judon
Judon will be the only returning member of the starters from 2018. He had 7.0 sacks on the year, the same as Smith, but was stifled for most of the season. Especially considering the lofty goals he set for himself at the beginning of the year.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) May 24, 2018
Judon’s year began very slowly, only notching 1.5 sacks in his first eight games and not registering a full sack until week six. However, his year began to turn up after a Week Eight matchup in which the Ravens fell 36-21 to the Carolina Panthers. He registered 10 tackles and a quarterback hit in the contest. In his second half of the season, he would resemble a Judon far more similar to his 2017 self. Over the next nine games, Judon tallied 24 tackles, seven tackles for loss, a forced fumble, 5.5 sacks, and 20 quarterback hits. This included a stellar wild-card game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Now entering 2019, Judon will be relied on far more than in previous years. He’s the best edge defender on the team and needs to fix his consistency issues. Coming off of an 8.0 sack sophomore year in 2017, expectations were high for Judon and he looked lost to begin the year. His biggest weakness was beating tackles directly off the edge. Judon’s versatility and ability to drop back in coverage makes him a hard player to account for on offense but he needs to create quarterback pressures on his own more often. Three of Judon’s seven sacks came in one game on back-to-back-to-back plays against the same player and needs to play a better full season this year.
The Rookie: Jaylon Ferguson
Going into the NFL Draft, the Ravens were severely understocked off the edge and came out of the draft with just one outside linebacker. Ferguson was the Ravens first of two third-round picks but comes with an exceptional college resume. Though he played outside of the power-five conferences, Ferguson finished his senior year as the NCAA’s all-time leading sack artist. He registered a crazy 45.0 sacks and 67.5 tackles for loss in four seasons.
“Jaylon Ferguson, you don’t get more productive than him.”
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) April 27, 2019
Ferguson will likely come in and directly contribute to the pass rush in 2019. There is a lot of competition around him but Ferguson also has perhaps the highest ceiling of the Ravens with a chance to break out. There is also reason to believe that Ferguson will be used in a variety of ways on the line of scrimmage. He isn’t the fastest off the edge but his ability to overpower defenders could make him a valuable player if lined up in the B-gap as well as outside the tackles. Smith was a player who had a ton of success here in 2018. None of the other members of the pass rushing unit utilize power moves like Ferguson, making him a very useful tool for setting the edge for his teammates.
There are a lot of bodies around Ferguson aching for game-time so his production will likely be limited in 2019. That doesn’t mean he can’t be effective with the time he sees. If Smith can learn to develop more than just his bull rush at the NFL level in 2019, he is going to be very successful in a Ravens’ organization that continues to breed quality pass rushers.
The Veteran: Pernell McPhee
Before there was Za’Darius Smith, there was McPhee. Before signing big extensions upon their rookie contracts expiring, the two players had near identical numbers in their final years in Baltimore. The difference being McPhee had an extra quarterback hit and Smith had an extra sack and more tackles.
McPhee had a solid career as a Raven in a rotation with a number of very good players. Over his four years after being drafted by Baltimore, McPhee only started six games — all coming in 2012. Despite this, he was able to notch 17.0 sacks and three forced fumbles. Similar to Smith, he was most productive when lining up against guards. He is also not as long as Smith. This doesn’t necessarily mean defensive coordinator Don Martindale won’t use him off the outside of the tackles, but he likely won’t feature in the pure outside edge role with all of the other players buying for snaps at the position.
The trait that McPhee best gives the Ravens pass rush is his experience. McPhee has spent his career around established pass rushers like Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil will likely bring a valuable voice to the unit. He is also one of just two Ravens defenders left from their Super Bowl victory in 2012.
The Tryout: Shane Ray
Ray is the wild card of the bunch going into 2019. A former first-round pick that many believed fit the Ravens during the draft process in 2015, Ray never really got the opportunity to shine as a member of the Denver Broncos.
His best season came in 2016 as a member of a pass rush that included Von Miller and a reclining DeMarcus Ware. Here he racked up 8.0 sacks and 21 quarterback hits while playing 58.0 percent of snaps. Ray now looked like he was poised to successfully fill Ware’s role after Ware’s retirement the following season. But he heavily underperformed in 2017. His year started with a torn ligament in his left wrist and was never able to get his feet under him. The Broncos selected another pass rusher Bradley Chubb in the 2018 draft and proceeded to decline Ray’s fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Ray did not start a game in 2018.
What Ray has going for him with Baltimore is that he is competing for an edge role up for anyone’s taking. The Ravens need a player opposite Judon who can get quickly off the edge and Ray has the intangibles. With all the different sets the Ravens put up against the line of scrimmage, Ray will be asked to do more than just rush the pass. His duties will largely be beating the man who is lined up in front and there are going to be a lot of times when Martindale just says get to the quarterback.
Ray should have no problem getting snaps and opportunities with the Ravens in 2019. The key will be staying healthy. A simplified game plan and a chance to prove his doubters wrong are exactly what Ray needs to charge his motor and have a good year.
"Shane and Pernell are out there competing. They look good." pic.twitter.com/2AyfaNw38E
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) May 23, 2019
The Breakout(s): Tim Williams/Tyus Bowser
I’ve lumped Williams and Bowser together because they are both in almost the exact same situation. They were drafted the same year in back-to-back rounds, have only had a limited amount of playing time, but have shown flashes of great ability.
At this point, any edge rusher signed from what's still available on FA market would be more of a depth move for Ravens. Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams still figure to get every opportunity to earn increased snaps with Suggs/Z.Smith gone.
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) May 13, 2019
Bowser, like Judon, has shown he is more of a hybrid edge than a pass rusher. He had a good final season in college rushing the passer, picking up 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in just eight games, but only has 3.5 sacks in 31 games as a Raven. Being behind a relatively deep group of edge outside linebackers hasn’t helped. Bowser’s chance to gather more snaps could be a problem with all the added depth on the Ravens. However, he could still find time backing up both Judon and Patrick Onwuasor. He’ll likely get an increase in snaps but where is still unknown.
Williams may have the most excitement centered around him coming into 2019 of the whole pass rush group. Coming out of Alabama, Williams was a first round talent but injury concerns forced him to slip into the third. Those same concerns are what has limited him to just 15 games in two seasons in Baltimore. Williams has missed time with injuries to his thigh, ankle, and hamstring over two seasons. Despite this, Williams likely has a clean slate and a starter position waiting for him in 2019. He’s been fairly solid when healthy and saw an increase in snaps in 2018. If Williams can channel what made him great in college and stay on the field, he could become a huge contributor and important player next season.
The #Ravens will look at Tim Williams to help fill the pass rush void left by Za'Darius Smith. He had some solid grades in the 8 games he played:
Run Defense: 80.1
Pass Rush: 66.9 pic.twitter.com/vb01blcDte
— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) March 24, 2019
Similar to 2018, there’s a good chance that the Ravens pass rush is what makes or breaks their defense in 2019. The Ravens had the number one rated defense in 2018 but their biggest weakness was getting to the passer. They finished the year with 43.0 sacks but this included a game in which they put up a franchise-best – 11 – in one game. Outside of this game, the Ravens averaged just 2.13 sacks a game.
The Ravens haven’t necessarily gotten better on the edge, but there are a ton of players with potential and the opportunity to contribute in different ways. There has also been another big investment made in the secondary with the addition of Earl Thomas. The secondary is still Baltimore’s strongest position group. If nothing, they should give the pass rush a little extra time to get home. The Ravens’ identity remains its defense and the 2019 pass rush needs to do its part to keep the unit elite.