Ravens Position Preview: DL
The Ravens defensive line might be the most talented position group on the entire team, and if it’s not the most talented it is certainly the deepest. The team has consistently poured draft capital into the DL and recently made Brandon Williams one of the highest paid DTs in the NFL. This commitment to the DL is a big reason why the Ravens run defense has been so consistently good for so long. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Ravens have finished outside of the top 12 in rush defense only once since 2008 when the finished 25th in 2012. Of course that was the year the Ravens won the SB, but they were also without Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs for much of the season as well as one of their best tacklers in Lardarius Webb. Even with that one poor season, the Ravens average out to be the 8.7th best rush defense since John Harbaugh took over as HC including one season as the best rush defense in the league and 4 other seasons finishing in the top 5.
Heading into 2017, the Ravens have their anchor along the line in Brandon Williams. He may be the best run-stopping DT the Ravens have ever had which at first blush may sound absurd with names like Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata all having worn the purple and black, but he is truly a dominant force on the interior of the line and the Ravens paid him as such. However, once you get past Williams the depth chart is full of names that haven’t seen very much playing time in the NFL. Michael Pierce is the only other player that saw significant snaps last season, but even he was more of a part time player, so let’s take a look at the Ravens Defensive Lineman and see why it has such great potential in 2017 and beyond.
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There are a lot of defenders that have drawn rave reviews so far in training camp, including a couple of rookies, but one player to keep an eye on is 3rd round pick Chris Wormley. The 74th overall selection has the prototypical size to play DE in the Ravens 3-4 front. In college, Wormley was a strong run defender and flashed ability to generate pressure from the inside when playing DT. There is a lot of competition for snaps at DE so we will have to wait and see how the Michigan product fits into the defense, but the expectation is for him to carve out a role as a rotational player who can play either DE or DT in the Ravens defensive front.
Last year’s 3rd round pick Bronson Kaufusi will essentially be competing for the same role in the Ravens defense as Chris Wormley. After missing all of his rookie season with a broken ankle, Kaufusi will be looking to prove himself in a deep group of defensive lineman. Similar to Wormley, Kaufusi possesses excellent size and length for a DE, but he may be able to separate himself from his competition as he has a bit more edge-rushing prowess than other Ravens defensive lineman. He uses his length well to bend the edge so the Ravens could potentially use him at DE in sub-packages when they want a little more size on the field. If Kaufusi impresses in traning camp and pre-season he could be a starter along the defensive line and at the very least should be a regular presence in the Ravens rotation of lineman.
Next, we have Brent Urban, a 4th round pick in the 2014 draft who is the Ravens longest tenured DE. Urban has also missed considerable time due to injury, but did manage to crack the defensive line rotation last year and played well in a limited role flashing the ability to use his length to push the pocket. He’s another massive player at 6’7 whose length has made him a factor in ST where he has demonstrated some prowess in blocking kicks. He will be a strong candidate to start for the Ravens at DE, and similar to Wormley and Kaufusi, he will at the very least be a regular in the defensive line rotation.
Michael Pierce was perhaps the biggest surprise for the Ravens in the 2016 season. The undrafted rookie essentially forced the Ravens to keep him on the 53 man roster after a strong preseason in which he was seemingly constantly making plays in the opponent’s backfield. His strong play continued throughout the season where he and Brandon Williams became a potent 1-2 punch along the Ravens interior defensive line. Now that Timmy Jernigan has been traded to Philadelphia, Pierce looks primed to start for the Ravens at NT where he should continue to be a force both against the run and as a player who can generate some pressure on passing downs.
Third year DT/NT Carl Davis and second year DT Willie Henry, 3rd and 5th round picks respectively, are two players who will be looking to make a strong impression during training camp. Davis had a few nice moments as a rookie and even started 3 games, but fizzled a bit over the course of the season and then missed all of the 2016 campaign with an ankle injury. Davis should figure to make the roster as a reserve DT/NT who will serve as a primary back-up to Pierce and Williams. Henry was healthy in 2016, but was unable to crack a deep defensive line rotation and was a healthy scratch each week. He has potential to be a strong interior pass-rusher on a team that may be looking for that particular skill-set now that Jernigan is not on the roster. Similar to Davis, Henry should fit on the roster as a reserve DT who may find a role as a sub-package three technique who look to get after the pass-rusher. It’s possible that only one of these recent draft picks makes the roster and if I had to choose one I would lean towards Henry.
Don’t sleep on UDFA Patrick Ricard, who will have a shot to make the roster if he continues to impress in training camp. He profiles as more of a pass-rusher than run defender and he could be Davis and Henry’s stiffest competition as a reserve interior defender. It’s always a long shot for undrafted free agents, but the Ravens always seem to find a gem and this year it could be Ricard.
Finally, we have the Ravens premier defensive line talent, Brandon Williams. There was a lot of discussion in Baltimore this past offseason when the Ravens decided to pay Williams a huge sum of money to stay with the Ravens for five more seasons. The pros and cons of the contract and how it affected the Ravens ability to make other moves has been discussed both here and elsewhere ad nauseum and that is not the purpose of this analysis. I want to talk about why Williams got paid – he’s really good at stuffing the run.
Brandon Williams who is one of the best run stopping defensive tackles is returning to Baltimore. pic.twitter.com/5piMQkj96W
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) March 10, 2017
Since taking over as the Ravens starting NT in 2014, he has been amongst the league’s best in run stops and run stop percentage. Only Damon Harrison of the Jets/Giants has had more run stops in that time. This is an incredibly valuable skill even in an era where teams love to pass the ball more than ever. Making a team one dimensional should be a major win for the defense, and now that the Ravens have revamped their secondary and pass-rush, it’s going to be hard to consistently move the ball on them. Williams has also dedicated this offseason towards improving his skills as a pass-rusher, and with Michael Pierce looking to take on the role of NT, Williams will have more opportunity to see if his dedication pays off as the starting DT on the Ravens defensive line.
The Ravens defensive line is a deep, talented and youthful group. There are a lot of players who will be looking to make a name for themselves and the competition for snaps should be a lot of fun to watch. I would tentatively project Williams, Pierce and Urban as the Ravens starters but as previously mentioned Wormley, Kaufusi, Henry, Davis and perhaps Ricard could all factor into the defensive line equation. While it is unlikely that all 8 players make the 53 man roster, it’s a great thing to have this kind of quality depth.