The Baltimore Ravens pass rush has been a popular topic of discussion the past few off-seasons. Since the departure of Terrell Suggs—the franchise leader in sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss—the Ravens have not had a player truly dominate off of the edge on a year-in, year-out basis. Heading into the 2021 season, there is once again a question mark on the edge of the front seven. While DeCosta may have confidence in his pass-rushing unit going into 2021, the Ravens could still upgrade at edge defender before Week 1.
Baltimore Ravens Pass Rush Can Still Improve Before Week 1
Suggs was the last Ravens player to register double-digit sacks, doing so in 2017. Since Suggs departed Baltimore, general manager Eric DeCosta has been somewhat sheepish on adding pass-rushing talent. Ravens brass appears to clearly favor building the secondary as opposed to the loading up in the front seven. This resulted in allocating several resources to Baltimore’s defensive backfield. It is not necessarily a bad thing but it is becoming a clear philosophical difference from the way the franchise previously operated under Ozzie Newsome’s regime.
Despite this fact, defensive coordinator Don Martindale has gotten a lot out of the edge defenders he has had in the locker room. In fact, Baltimore has boasted the most players with a sack since Martindale took over in 2018. His blitz-heavy approach has allowed the Ravens to still consistently pressure most quarterbacks despite rarely having a player that can win one-on-one on the outside. He will likely have to dig deep into his bag of tricks in 2021 as well.
Baltimore will look to replace the 1,185 combined snaps played between Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, and Jihad Ward. In 2020, this trio of edge rushers collected 12 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, 56 pressures, and 15 tackles for loss between them.
Assessing the Current Ravens Pass Rush Depth Chart
Heading into the new season, the Ravens currently have four players poised to be locks on the 53-man roster. Veteran Pernell McPhee has earned praise largely for his run defense. Tyus Bowser was Baltimore’s most effective every-down outside linebacker last season. Jaylon Ferguson should continue to provide depth in pass-rushing situations in his third year.
The Ravens added two pass rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft but their group still lacks high-end production and depth. Rookie first-round pick Odafe Oweh could also play a pivotal role after Martindale praised his efforts in his first week of rookie minicamp. Fellow rookie Daelin Hayes, a fifth-round pick, is currently the favorite to claim the final outside linebacker spot. He did not have a particularly productive college career but was renowned for his leadership qualities at Notre Dame. Because injuries contributed to a lack of snaps over his four-year collegiate career, his best football could very well be in front of him.
Martindale has always kept an outside linebacker room that runs four or five players deep. Therefore, it is hard to see DeCosta enter next year without adding another body on the edge. Last season, the Ravens had five different edge defenders play 300 or more snaps. In 2018, Martindale’s first year in charge, three edge defenders played 600 or more snaps. The Ravens defensive coordinator prefers pass rushers who can contribute on different downs and in different ways.
Potential Ravens Pass Rush Free-Agent Targets:
Justin Houston (32)
Justin Houston is the name most frequently linked to the Ravens. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell was the latest to predict that Houston may land in Baltimore as the former All-Pro visited the Ravens in mid-April. He left Baltimore without a deal but the Ravens have shown interest and the fit between the two parties makes a lot of sense. Houston is one of the best sack artists of the past decade but has not shown his age in recent seasons. His 37.5 sacks are tied for the 10th-most in the NFL since 2017. He finished 2020 with 8 sacks, one forced fumble, and 25 pressures.
While the fit between Houston and the Ravens makes sense, there are still questions regarding his play from last season. Houston has been one of the best pass rushers in the league since he stepped into the NFL in 2011 but Pro Football Focus attributed him the lowest pressure rate of his career at 8.3% last year. However, there is one element Houston brings to the table many of the other free agent edge defenders do not. While known mostly for his pass-rushing capabilities, he also boasts the ability to cover as a more traditional linebacker. Martindale asks a lot of his defensive players and Houston’s versatility could prove beneficial to a somewhat shallow edge-defender group.
Houston’s presence would afford Martindale and the team greater patience with Odafe Oweh. Oweh has only played football since his junior year of high school. As such, he could benefit from a slower beginning to his career. Houston provides the versatility allowing him to play either the pure pass rush or strong-side linebacker role. He would also offer the locker room a proven leader at a position that needs it desperately.
Melvin Ingram (32)
Melvin Ingram is coming off of the least productive season of his career last year. The three-time Pro Bowler was limited to seven games due to injury and was not able to register a sack in 362 snaps. He finished the year without a sack and with zero tackles for loss but was able to record five quarterback hits and 12 pressures.
However, Ingram’s stats may not tell the story of how effective he was last season. Despite recording a mere five quarterback knockdowns, his total from 2020 was actually higher than his total from 2019. Ingram also played in six fewer games. PFF asserted Ingram tied for the most pressures without a sack last season while he finished with an overall grade of 72.3.
The Ravens have several versatile players in their front seven and while Ingram may not be the most technical player, his tremendous speed and athleticism would make him a pass-rushing weapon. Jadeveon Clowney, who also did not record a sack in 2020, received a one-year, $10 million contract from the Cleveland Browns; Ingram will likely command slightly less because he is four years older and coming off of an injury. If DeCosta could acquire Ingram, he would likely fit the role Yannick Ngakoue vacated after signing with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Olivier Vernon (30)
Olivier Vernon is the type of player that the Ravens typically value. He is not the most spectacular athlete but he is a great run defender and has a fairly productive track record. Over the past four seasons, he has registered 6.5 or more sacks every year outside of 2019 (a season in which he only played in 10 games). He also accrued 11 or more quarterback hits each year. His 9 sacks in 2020 were his most in a single season since 2013 and were tied for 14th-most in the NFL. Vernon can play on all three downs and would allow the Ravens to properly limit McPhee’s snaps on early downs.
The biggest question regarding Vernon is how much of his production in 2020 was a product of Myles Garrett. Garrett, arguably the best edge defender in football, largely allowed Vernon to face fewer blockers and find easier matchups. If Vernon were to join the Ravens, he would play maybe the largest volume of snaps among edge rushers. His ability to stay on the field could also prove a question mark now that he is 30 years old and has not played a full 16-game season since 2016. Signing Vernon would nonetheless prove a safe addition to the Baltimore Ravens pass rush.
Salary Cap Implications of Adding a Free Agent to the Ravens Pass Rush
Per Over the Cap, the Ravens have approximately $9.7 million in cap space. They are also yet to sign three of their 2021 NFL Draft picks. Those three players—Odafe Oweh, Ben Cleveland, and Brandon Stephens—are projected to take up roughly $3.8 million against the cap. This leaves the Ravens with around $5.9 million left to spend on another player perhaps.
12 edge defenders signed for more than an average annual value of $6 million this off-season. Of those 12 players, Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Samson Ebukam were the only players to register fewer than 6.0 sacks in 2020.
While the Ravens may add another body at edge defender, they likely will have to hope the market develops in their favor. Finding highly productive pass rushers in the NFL is incredibly tough and teams typically pay a premium for disrupters off of the edge. DeCosta will not overspend at the position and has also shown he wants to maximize his roster at every level. Based on the current state of the Ravens pass rush and the edge-rusher market in 2021, adding another pass rusher before the season is likely but not inevitable.
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