2021 Ravens training camp preview: Defensive line

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With all passes for both training camp and the July 31 stadium practice claimed in under 24 hours, there’s no shortage of fan excitement as the Ravens ramp up preparations for the 2021 season next week.

But with that enthusiasm comes great expectations for a franchise that’s won 25 regular-season games over the last two years. The Ravens will not only be aiming to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, but a deeper January run is in order after back-to-back exits in the divisional round. In the eyes of many, it will be Super Bowl or bust as a talented roster becomes more and more expensive.

Ahead of the start of training camp next week, we’ll take a look at a position group for the 2021 Ravens every day:

Quarterbacks
Outside linebackers
Running backs
Safeties
Tight ends and fullbacks

DEFENSIVE LINE

Projected depth chart entering training camp:
5-TECHNIQUE – Calais Campbell, Broderick Washington
NOSE – Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis, Aaron Crawford
3-TECHNIQUE – Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Jovan Swann

Why to be impressed: Prioritizing the improvement of a run defense that ranked an unimpressive 21st in efficiency in 2019, the Ravens added Campbell and Wolfe last offseason to improve that mark to 12th despite the overall numbers suffering because of injury absences in some poor outings. Holding 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries in the wild-card playoff win at Tennessee illustrated the overall growth in that department by season’s end. Pro Football Focus graded Campbell, Williams, and Wolfe in the 83rd percentile or better in run defense in 2020. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell was named to his sixth Pro Bowl despite missing nearly five full games with a calf injury and a COVID-19 infection. We were again reminded of Williams’ run-stopping value as Baltimore allowed its three highest single-game rushing totals of 2020 in games in which the veteran nose tackle was absent or exited very early. Wolfe led all Baltimore defensive linemen in snaps and tied his career high with 51 tackles. Madubuike, a 2020 third-round pick, really came on against the run and as a pass rusher late in the season and was recently named to PFF’s list of 15 second-year breakout candidates.

Why to be concerned: The returning members of this unit combined to record only six sacks last season, a big reason why defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will continue to lean heavily on the blitz and scheme to create pressure. Wolfe, Williams, and Campbell combined to miss at least a major portion of 11 games, which can’t be dismissed with each being 31 or older and the latter two entering the final year of their respective contracts. Despite being the most durable of the three in playing all but two games last season, Wolfe also has an injury history, leaving more reason to take pause about a veteran group that still looks strong on paper. Campbell will turn 35 in September and had missed only six games in his career before missing nearly five full games last season, so the Ravens will hope this isn’t a case of a 14-year veteran being durable until he isn’t anymore. There is much optimism about Madubuike after his play down the stretch last season, but the only other player to play extensive snaps in the rotation was Justin Ellis, who is also on the wrong side of 30.

Big question: Can this position group fight off Father Time and identify more promise for the future?

No one doubts the ability of these accomplished veterans entering 2021, but durability is a fair concern, especially with Madubuike being the only young option to take advantage of opportunities last season. General manager Eric DeCosta faces tough choices on the future of both Williams and Campbell after the season, but Madubuike building on what he did as a rookie and another youngster like Washington or Crawford emerging as a useful member of the rotation would help make those decisions easier. The Ravens hope new defensive line coach Anthony Weaver will aid in the development of these younger players while managing the snaps of his talented veterans over a long season.

Prediction: Madubuike may not become an official starter until 2022, but he will lead all Baltimore defensive linemen in sacks and receive a starter volume of snaps by the end of his second season with the Ravens.