2021 Ravens training camp preview: Outside linebackers

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

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

Projected depth chart entering training camp:
SAM – Tyus Bowser, Daelin Hayes, Aaron Adeoye
RUSH – Pernell McPhee, Odafe Oweh, Jaylon Ferguson, Chauncey Rivers

Why to be impressed: Four of the top five projected options on the depth chart are 26 or younger, meaning there’s youth and long-term potential in this group. Pro Football Focus graded Bowser ninth among 30 qualified edge defenders in pass coverage and 19th among 109 qualified edge defenders against the run last season, which illustrates why the Ravens elected to invest a reasonable four-year, $22 million contract to retain the 2017 second-round pick over paying more lucrative prices to keep Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. The 32-year-old McPhee played his best football down the stretch last season and graded 11th among qualified edge defenders against the run, according to PFF. Oweh, the 31st overall pick in this year’s draft, has impressive size and athleticism and was very strong against the run at Penn State last season, which should improve his chances of seeing more extensive action early as he continues to develop his pass-rushing skills.

Why to be concerned: With the Ravens already relying on blitzing a league-high 44.1% of the time (Pro Football Reference) just to finish 14th in sacks with 39 last season, Judon, Ngakoue, and Jihad Ward accounted for nearly a third of their sacks and just over a quarter of their quarterback hits last season. That’s a good bit of production to replace by adding only two rookies who didn’t exactly have big-time pass-rushing production at the collegiate level. Oweh failing to register a sack in seven games last season doesn’t mean he won’t be a good player at the next level, but it reflects how much development he still needs. Last season was the first time Bowser ever logged more than 390 defensive snaps, so it will be interesting to see how he handles an even bigger workload, especially if younger options prove unready for prime time. The Ravens did an excellent job managing McPhee’s snaps to keep him strong down the stretch, but his age and injury history make it far from a sure thing that he’ll hold up to the level the Ravens might need with such an inexperienced group of edge defenders. The numbers game was a factor, but Ferguson being a healthy scratch last December and January didn’t say much for the progress of the 2019 third-round pick, making this a pivotal season for him as other young players compete for playing time. Judon’s departure leaves the Ravens especially thin at the strong-side “Sam” spot, meaning the fifth-round rookie Hayes should have every opportunity to crack the rotation if he shows an ability to drop into coverage.

Big question: Will an analytics-based approach to pass defense hold up as the Ravens test its limits?

In recent offseasons, the Ravens have said goodbye to current or former Pro Bowl edge rushers Judon, Ngakoue, Za’Darius Smith, and Terrell Suggs in free agency while pumping lucrative money into the secondary, the kind of roster construction that aligns with the football analytics principle of valuing pass coverage before pressure. To offset those losses on the edge, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has used deception and the blitz more than anyone in the NFL over the last three seasons with the Ravens remaining a top 10 or better pass defense over that time despite the roster turnover and their fair share of injuries. That philosophy will be tested more than ever this season with just three returning players — 34-year-old defensive lineman Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Patrick Queen, and McPhee — who recorded three or more sacks in 2020. Some veteran options such as Justin Houston remain on the open market, but Pittsburgh just signed three-time Pro Bowl selection Melvin Ingram this week and other teams are always looking for pass-rushing help as well. The handwringing about the pass rush has become an annual topic locally, but the Ravens’ blitz-heavy approach has worked very well against virtually everyone but Kansas City. That’s nothing about which to be ashamed, of course, but toppling Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs with an effective four-man rush figures to be a requirement at some point if the Ravens are to take the next step in January. That’s why Oweh’s development will be so critical as the first edge defender drafted in the first round by Baltimore since Suggs in 2003.

Prediction: The Ravens will sign or trade for a situational edge rusher ahead of the 2021 season opener against Las Vegas on Sept. 13.