2021 Ravens training camp preview: Inside linebackers

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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 this 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 this 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
Offensive line

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Projected depth chart entering training camp:
MIKE – Patrick Queen, Chris Board, Kristian Welch
WILL – L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, Otaro Alaka, Barrington Wade

Why to be impressed: After plenty of problems and substantial lineup changes two years ago, the inside linebacker position was more stable in 2020 with Queen, Fort, Harrison, and Board all logging meaningful snaps in various defensive packages. Baltimore’s first-round pick last year, Queen led the team in tackles and was the only player in the NFL to register at least 70 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and a defensive touchdown, illustrating his upside in his age-21 season after limited starting experience at LSU. The 31-year-old Fort was the Ravens’ most consistent off-ball linebacker, setting career highs in tackles (53) and snaps while playing pretty well in coverage. Harrison showed plenty of physicality as a rookie and made 44 tackles despite averaging just 16.5 defensive snaps per game. Primarily a special-teams contributor, Board registered 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble and played much more down the stretch as a hybrid dime back.

Why to be concerned: Despite the promise he showed at his best, Queen had difficulty taking on blockers and was too often out of position in coverage, leading the league with 22 missed tackles and surrendering a 117.5 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus. More consistency is needed moving forward for Queen to be a successful first-round selection. Harrison looked the part of a developing early-down thumper against the run last year, but his development in pass coverage will determine his chances of becoming a three-down linebacker next to Queen in the years to come.

Big question: Will new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan help Queen and Harrison take a step forward to live up to their early-round billing?

The circumstances and limitations created by the pandemic in 2020 made the up-and-down performance of young players less surprising, but the pressure is on Ryan to cultivate more consistency at a position that demands more versatility and skill in coverage than ever. In the spring, Queen said his conditioning was an early-season problem without a normal offseason program last year, but that didn’t really explain the concerns about his awareness in coverage. Queen and Harrison don’t need to become Pro Bowl players for their 2020 selections to be deemed a success, of course, but you’d really like to see inside linebacker become a position of strength on this defense when factoring in the long-term questions on the defensive line and with the pass rush. With Fort now 31 and under contract only through this season, Board, 26, taking another step as a viable option in sub packages would also be an encouraging development.

Prediction: Queen will take a substantial step forward in his development by again leading the Ravens in tackles and showing enough improvement in pass coverage to play virtually every snap after taking just 80% of the defensive snaps and being replaced in certain sub packages as a rookie.