Evaluating Ravens Defensive Personnel
In my previous article, I took a look at the Ravens current personnel on the offensive side of the ball going into the 2017 season. There are reasons for optimism although it will be important for the front office to address certain positions like the offensive line and WR. At first glance, one would think that the defensive side of the ball would be in better shape than the offense considering the performance of both units in 2016. However, there are several reasons why I think this may not be the case.
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The 2016 Ravens defense was a very respectable unit, at times sitting atop the league in several notable defensive categories. The strongest aspect of the defense was probably the run defense, although the pass defense was quite formidable as long as starting CB Jimmy Smith was on the field. The one glaring weakness that became more and more apparent as the season progressed was the lack of any semblance of a pass rush. Unfortunately, this one flaw, combined with the absence of Smith, became a fatal one. The Ravens were completely unable to pressure opposing QBs in key games down the stretch, and caused the team to lose games even when the offense scored enough points to win.
Looking ahead to 2017, there does not seem to be an answer on the current roster to amend this problem. Elvis Dumervil was injured for much of 2016 and when he was on the field, the impact was minimal at best. Terrell Suggs had a strong start to the season, but a torn biceps muscle impacted his play down the stretch as he only notched 3 sacks over the last 9 games and 0 in the last 5. Za’Darius Smith was completely unproductive for the Ravens after a promising rookie campaign, managing to bring down the opposing QB only once all season. Rookie Matt Judon flashed ability at times and finished the season with 4 sacks, but he was largely a non-factor down the stetch. 2nd round pick Kamalei Correa barely saw the field due to injury and it is unclear how the Ravens will use him moving forward. With Dumervil looking like a potential cap casualty, it is difficult to see how the Ravens pass-rush will improve in 2017 without significant retooling either by the draft, free agency or perhaps both.
Fortunately for the Ravens, the 2017 draft class is looking to be very strong at the edge rusher position, headlined by Texas A&M star Myles Garrett. While it is highly unlikely the Ravens will have the chance to draft Garrett, there are a number of other players that may draw interest including Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams, Stanford product Solomon Thomas, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Takk McKinley of UCLA, Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Auburn’s Carl Lawson. Any of these players would provide an instant upgrade for the Ravens along the edge, and with the depth of this class it may be possible to draft a high quality pass rusher in the 2nd round. There are also several veteran options the Ravens could pursue in free agency such as Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard and Nick Perry.
Of course, edge defenders are not the only position from which a defense can generate a pass-rush and the Ravens could look to improve upon the production they got from their interior defenders as well. Timmy Jernigan proved to be very disruptive out of the gate, but similar to Suggs, he got banged up and his production dropped off in the second half of the season. This could partly be due to a lack of threats around him on the defensive line as NT/DT Brandon Williams does not offer much as a pass-rusher and there was no one else on the roster that fit the role of an interior pass-rusher. Williams, along with fellow starter DE/DT Lawrence Guy are both UFAs and the Ravens will have to decide if either, neither or both should be re-signed. Guy will likely be a far cheaper option than Williams, whose value will likely equal or surpass the 5 year, $46 Million dollar contract that Damon Harrison was awarded last offseason. The Ravens do have some depth at DT/DE with rookie DT Michael Pierce acquitting himself well in his first season and DE Brent Urban also playing well in limited snaps. They will also be getting back DT Carl Davis from IR, and 2016 draft picks DT Willie Henry and DE Bronson Kaufusi who didn’t see field last year will have a chance to prove their worth. Free agency and the draft could also be avenues by which the Ravens strengthen their defensive line. Johnathan Hankins, Bennie Logan and Stephen Paea are noteworthy veterans who may become available while Malik McDowell of Michigan State, Elijah Qualls of Washington, Carlos Watkins of Clemson, Montravius Adams of Auburn and Eddie Vanderdoes of UCLA are players to watch in the draft.
One of the shocking developments of the off-season thus far was the retirement of ILB Zachary Orr due to a medical issue. The Ravens have an All-Pro caliber ILB in C.J. Mosley, but with Orr’s retirement, there is now a significant void next to him. It is possible that the Ravens will turn to LB Kamalei Correa as a potential replacement, but they may want to keep him at OLB. Currently there is no other obvious replacement on the roster for Orr meaning the team may have to turn towards the draft or free agency to find some depth at a minimum. The Ravens could look to draft an ILB as early as the first round with Alabama product Reuben Foster looking like one of the top prospects in the entire class. Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt is another intriguing player that may draw interest. In free agency veteran LB Karlos Dansby may be a prime candidate to fill the role.
Finally, the Ravens will need to improve their depth in the secondary as the unit had major issues when Jimmy Smith was unable to play because of injury. Rookie Tavon Young was a very positive surprise in 2016, but he showed some limitations when playing on the outside. He is best served as a nickel CB moving forward meaning the Ravens may need to find a starting outside CB with Shareece Wright not living up to expectations last season. The team could move on from Wright for performance/financial reasons leaving inexperienced Sheldon Price and Maurice Canady as the best options across from Smith. If Wright is let go, the Ravens will likely want to bring in two CBs with at least one of them seen as a viable starter. A high draft pick would make sense for one of these positions as the CB draft class is looking to be very strong. There are a number of players that could potentially be available in the first or second round headlined by Florida teammates Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor, Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, Washington’s Sidney Jones, Alabama product Marlon Humphrey and Iowa’s Desmond King. Free agents Morris Claiborne, Trumaine Johnson, Prince Amukamura and Micah Hyde are just a few options that may be available in a strong group of UFAs.
While the Ravens are probably set at the two starting safety positions for 2017 with Lardarius Webb and Eric Weddle, they will likely look to improve upon the depth and get younger and faster at the position. Back-up safety Kendrick Lewis is probably a cap casualty and the versatile Anthony Levine is an UFA along with former first round pick Matt Elam. I would expect the Ravens to attempt to retain Levine as he can play safety, CB or even LB in a pinch while also proving to be a solid ST player. Elam could also be brought back on the cheap as he shined on ST and could still find his way on defense if given the right role. Given the age of the current starters, safety is another position the Ravens could look to spend a high draft pick on. Jamal Adams of LSU and Malik Hooker of Ohio State are two of the top prospects in the draft, and Jabrill Peppers of Michigan is an intriguing hybrid player who was a top playmaker at the collegiate level.
Without a doubt, the Ravens will have to make some big decisions in the coming months on the defensive side of the ball regarding the potential release of players under contract like Dumervil and if they want to retain UFA Brandon Williams. With those decisions looming, there are some major weaknesses on the roster with a general lack of pass-rushing talent, a need to find viable starters at ILB and CB, and a general lack of quality depth at LB and in the secondary. In my opinion finding a quality pass-rusher or two along with a starting CB should take top priority for the Ravens front office. The defense can’t afford to rely on aging veterans at OLB and a carousel of replacement level CBs if/when Jimmy Smith can’t be on the field. How the Ravens address these concerns will be of vital importance if the team hopes to contend in 2017 and beyond.