The game is evolving and so is the way that NFL teams are constructing their defensive fronts.
The NFL has terraformed into a pass-happy league over the last decade. Stuffing the run between the tackles has become less of a necessity since offenses are increasingly trying to spread defenses out and like to run more outside zone when they do decide to keep the ball on the ground.
As a result, the need for more athletic defensive linemen that can both generate greater interior pressure and possess more lateral agility is on the rise.
Last offseason, the Ravens remodeled the interior of their defensive front-seven with that in mind. They let hulking defensive tackle Michael Pierce walk in free agency, traded for five-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell, signed Derek Wolfe, and drafted Justin Madubuike in the third round out of Texas A&M.
Campbell recorded four sacks and was extremely disruptive when healthy, Wolfe was an excellent run defender and set up several of his teammates for success on stunts and twists, and Madubuike showed a lot of promise as a rookie.
While the average height of the defensive linemen currently on the Ravens’ roster varies from 6-foot-8 to 6-foot-1, the average weight (minus Brandon Williams and veteran depth player Justin Ellis is 295.5 pounds. This number becomes 299.4 pounds if you’re confident in Aaron Crawford making the team in 2021. Even though the team’s sack total improved by just two — 37 in 2019 to 39 in 2020 — the defense as a whole was notably faster from front to back and played well when healthy.
I didn’t anticipate a veteran free-agent addition this offseason since they were determined to retain Wolfe and did. However, I fully expect them to draft at least one interior defensive lineman later this month with both Williams and Campbell only being under contract through this fall.
The Ravens have a rich history of developing quality-to-elite defensive linemen that they either drafted, signed as an undrafted free agent, or picked up after being discarded by another team. This year’s incoming defensive line crop isn’t spectacular or very deep but there are several prospects with more athletic profiles that could be had throughout the draft.
The only one consistently generating the first-round buzz is Christian Barmore. Since he hails from Alabama and some evaluators view him as a Top-10 prospect, he’d be a classic Ravens’ “best player available” pick if he is still on the board at No. 27.
On day two, a player like Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, who is arguably the most athletic prospect at the position in the entire draft, could be had in the second or early third round. Day three will feature a handful of underrated yet promising options such as NC State’s Alim McNeill or Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams. Both could possibly even sneak their way into the bottom half of the third.
Speaking of LA Tech, one intriguing avenue that they could explore is expanding the role of another former Bulldog already on the roster in OLB Jaylon Ferguson. They could deploy him in a hybrid role similar to the one that Jihad Ward played the past two seasons when active. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Ferguson has the same athletic profile as Ward, who is 6-foot-5 and 284 pounds, and could thrive as a situational interior pass rusher in sub-packages on obvious passing downs.
The 2019 third-round pick has yet to break out or live up to the ‘Sack Daddy’ nickname he earned in college, where he broke Ravens legend Terrell Suggs’ career FBS sack record. So far in the NFL, he has just 4.5 sacks in 28 career games including 10 starts. Ferguson was inactive in two of the Ravens’ final four games down the stretch in 2020 as well both playoff tilts in favor of Ward.
Heading into a pivotal third season where the team is expected to add another edge defender possibly even two if they bring in a veteran free agent and take one in the draft, Ferguson needs to find a way to get on the field consistently. Since Ward followed former defensive line coach Joe Cullen to Jacksonville, his hybrid edge role is ripe for the taking and Ferguson could be the right man for the job.
Finding more athletic defensive linemen that can both play the run well and be disruptive as interior pass rushers is easier said than done. Players like Aaron Donald don’t grow on trees and only come around once a generation.
However, if there is any team that I have the utmost confidence in to unearth and cultivate talent to evolve with the times on the defensive side of the ball, it’s the Ravens.