Ravens Position Preview: OLB
Summer is finally here, and there isn’t much news in the world of the National Football League during this time between offseason activities and the start of training camp. Coaches, scouts and players are all taking their final vacations before the grind of the season hits full stride. Those of us who report on or talk about the NFL have very little material to work with right now outside of pondering the small number of relevant free agents still unsigned or the occasional contract dispute/holdout/extension.
In order to break the monotony, here at Baltimore Sports and Life, we are going to take an in depth look at the Ravens 90 man roster and break down the strengths and weaknesses of each position group including projections on who will make the final 53 man roster and how big of a role they will have on Sundays.
We are going to start off by taking a look at the edge rushers the Ravens have under contract. In 2016, this was one of the least productive positions on the team. In the Ravens 3-4 hybrid defense, OLBs are charged with the responsibility of being the primary pass-rushers on the team and the production in 2016 was sub-optimal. Terrell Suggs led the team with 8 sacks and rookie OLB Matt Judon notched 4 sacks in limited playing time. The Ravens got very little production from the oft-injured and since-departed Elvis Dumervil and 2nd year player Za’Darius Smith in 2016. Are the Ravens poised to improve on this production in 2017? There are currently 6 OLBs on the Ravens roster: Suggs, Judon, Smith, practice squad player Brennen Beyer, and two recent draft picks – 2nd round selection Tyus Bowser and 3rd round pick Tim Williams.
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The addition of two high draft picks is certainly a much needed injection of talent at the OLB position. Tim Williams was viewed as one of the top prospects in the 2017 draft class before a number of character flags and off the field concerns dropped his stock. He possesses natural explosiveness and bend off the edge that should at a minimum earn him some snaps as a pass-rush specialist. It may take more time for Williams to develop into a complete OLB, but there is potential for immediate impact as a rookie.
In many ways, Tyus Bowser has a complimentary skill set to fellow rookie Tim Williams. Bowser is far rawer as an edge rusher, although he has elite athleticism that should translate into an ability to pressure the QB. Bowser is also a more polished run defender and is adept at dropping into coverage when asked to do so. With his skill-set, Bowser may push for a starting job opposite of Terrell Suggs, but he will have stiff competition from Matt Judon to fill that role. Whether or not Bowser starts as a rookie, he will undoubtedly have a significant role in the Ravens defense in 2017.
Both Matt Judon and Za’Darius Smith were part-time starters for the Ravens in 2016, and their lack of consistent production was a big reason why the Ravens heavily invested in the OLB position in the 2017 draft. Of these two returning players, Judon has flashed more pass-rushing prowess, while neither one has demonstrated a consistent ability to set the edge in the run game. For this reason, Judon likely will be given every opportunity to earn a starting OLB role in training camp as there is some expectation for 2nd year players to take a bit of a leap as they have had a full season to adjust to the NFL game. Smith may have a difficult path towards playing time in 2017 and could possibly even miss the cut for the 53 man roster if Judon and the rookies impress. That said, the NFL is undoubtedly a meritocracy and if Smith can demonstrate significant improvement as a run defender and/or a pass-rusher he may yet figure prominently in the Ravens defense in 2017.
Terrell Suggs is entering his 15th season in the NFL and while some of his pass-rushing skills have decayed over the years he is still a formidable presence on the edge and the unquestioned leader of the Ravens defense. With the new talent that the Ravens have brought in at OLB, Suggs figures to still be a fixture at the Rush-LB position, although it is conceivable he will see a slight downtick in snaps, especially if rookies Bowser and Williams show an aptitude for rushing the passer. Suggs is still one of the better run defending OLBs in the NFL and he should be a consistent presence on early downs.
The OLB position should be a fun position to watch for Ravens fans in 2017. There is a lot of young talent at the position and a veteran leader in Suggs who is nothing if not entertaining. There is potential for the OLBs to be highly productive in Dean Pees’ defense as the team will have the most depth at OLB since the 2014 season when Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee combined for 36.5 sacks. I wouldn’t expect that level of production in 2017, but 25-30 combined sacks from Suggs, Judon, Bowser and Williams seems attainable and may be necessary for the team to have success.