Experience, youth at edge defender still on list of needs for Ravens

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Do the Ravens need to add a veteran edge defender or draft an outside linebacker later this month?

Yes and yes.

You don’t lose a combined 1,185 defensive snaps from Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, and Jihad Ward and expect to simply replace them with incumbents, especially after Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, and Jaylon Ferguson played a total of 1,302 defensive snaps themselves last season. While Bowser and Ferguson — two players in their mid-20s — will likely see increased workloads in 2021, the injury history of the 32-year-old McPhee would make it unwise to push the limits of the 30.6 snaps per game he played last season if you want him to be both available and effective in December and January.

That’s what makes this week’s free-agent visit of Justin Houston so interesting. His remarkable 22-sack campaign with Kansas City back in 2014 is a distant memory and Pro Football Focus tracked Houston’s pressure rate as the lowest of his career last season, but he’s registered eight or more sacks in each of the last four seasons and played in every game for Indianapolis over the last two years. In other words, there are some fair reasons why he’s still available a month after the start of free agency — especially with a lower salary cap — but the 32-year-old is still capable of helping a defense at a reasonable price and in the right situation, especially if you can reduce the 608 snaps he played last year. 

Similar arguments apply to the likes of Melvin Ingram, Jadeveon Clowney, and Everson Griffen, who also carry age or health concerns on the open market at this point.

That’s why general manager Eric DeCosta has proceeded with caution in the quest to add to the outside linebacker position. Having deemed Judon and Ngakoue too expensive relative to their production in the Baltimore defense, DeCosta isn’t about to forfeit the projected 2022 fourth-round compensatory picks he’ll receive for their free-agent departures to sign a veteran if there isn’t sufficient belief in that individual really moving the meter. The third-year general manager showed last year he was willing to be aggressive to add an edge rusher by renting Ngakoue’s services for a 2021 third-round pick in October, but that underwhelming outcome is likely prompting DeCosta to prefer to wait until after the May 3 deadline when unrestricted free-agent signings no longer count against the compensatory formula.   

That brings us to the draft where the Ravens will dream of finding the next Terrell Suggs, Peter Boulware, or at least another Judon or Za’Darius Smith. Despite plenty of athletic upside, this edge defender class isn’t regarded among the top position groups in this year’s draft, making one wonder if the right prospect will be available for Baltimore with its scheduled 27th or 58th overall picks. That’s not to say someone like Penn State’s Jayson Oweh or Houston’s Payton Turner wouldn’t do the trick for what the Ravens seek, but the board doesn’t always fall as expected and you don’t want to reach for a specific need.

At the same time, there’s no guarantee the aforementioned free agents are going to wait until after the draft, especially if other suitors not attached to compensatory picks come calling. Patience might be DeCosta’s best approach, but it’s accompanied by the risk of coming away empty-handed or with inferior options on both fronts.

For now, the Ravens will trust their process, which includes the coaching style of defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. If we’ve learned anything about his defenses beyond being top-10 caliber units in each of his first three seasons in charge, the Ravens will continue to be aggressive after leading the NFL in blitz rate three straight years, according to Pro Football Reference.

The pass rush has remained a perceived concern for a few years now, but the lucrative resources pumped into the secondary and Martindale’s blitz-heavy approach have kept the defense playing at a championship-caliber level. The sum has remained greater than the individual parts — a Baltimore player hasn’t reached double-digit sacks since Suggs in 2017 — as the defense held explosive Buffalo to just 10 offensive points in last January’s playoff defeat. In fact, the only opponent to consistently exploit the Ravens’ lack of a robust four-man rush has been Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City, the team everyone other than defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay has been chasing over the last two years. 

Of course, depending on how these next few weeks go, the Ravens’ defensive formula could be tested more than ever after bidding farewell to a pair of former Pro Bowl edge defenders. But DeCosta and Martindale have more than earned the benefit of the doubt in shaping the defense and pass rush.

Odds are the Ravens will still manage to come away with what they need at outside linebacker — even if doubts persist and the individual parts don’t look all that impressive on paper.