Queen embracing normal spring to become more consistent for Ravens

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Evaluating Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s rookie season wasn’t easy.

The first-round pick from LSU led his team in tackles (105) and was the only player in the NFL with at least 70 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and a defensive touchdown, reflecting his big-play ability and high ceiling. Queen was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 5 after recording nine tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries — one returned for a touchdown — in the 27-3 win over Cincinnati. His speed and athleticism made him an effective blitzing option for Wink Martindale’s aggressive defense throughout the season.

He looked like a budding star at times, and there was much to like.

But Queen also led the league with 22 missed tackles and surrendered a 117.5 passer rating when targeted in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. The 21-year-old was frequently out of position in pass coverage and struggled to shed blockers, resulting in PFF grading him 82nd of 83 qualified off-ball linebackers last season. Even if that assessment seemed overly harsh, Queen often didn’t play like a first-round pick at a position that all but demands strong coverage skills to be valued in today’s game. Those difficulties sometimes resulted in Martindale replacing Queen in certain sub packages as the rookie played 80% of the defensive snaps.

No, it wasn’t always pretty, but expectations at the position in this town aren’t the most realistic after watching one of the best of all time do it for 17 years. Inside linebacker has also become increasingly difficult for young players in today’s pass-happy NFL, meaning some patience is warranted.

Despite his inconsistent play, Queen finished third in the voting for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, a result with which he appeared to take exception at the time of the announcement. But after starting all 16 games as a rookie — matching his total career starts in college, mind you — Queen acknowledged both the good and the challenges of an unprecedented 2020 season.

“I’m proud of myself, and I’m still hard on myself,” Queen said. “As I look back, pass coverage, stuff is so easy that I’m getting now that last year I was just messing up time and time and time again. And it wasn’t always the same stuff; it was just different stuff.”

The cancellation of the in-person offseason training program last year put Queen and hundreds of other rookies in the position of working out on their own and having only virtual meetings with coaches and veteran teammates after losing the structure of college. Instead of learning the lay of the land at the training facility in Owings Mills and easing into spring activities at a slower pace, first-year players were thrown into the fire of an abbreviated training camp. Then, ready or not, Week 1 arrived without the opportunity to log a single preseason game snap.

While many wondered if his listed 6-foot, 232-pound frame was too slight for the next level, Queen said the absence of a normal offseason left him in poor football condition and heavier than he wanted to be going into the start of the season. That’s why he isn’t taking a more normal spring for granted in his second year.

“Last year, I didn’t go into the season in shape at all. I came in like 240-something [pounds], couldn’t catch my breath when we were running,” said Queen, who sees his ideal weight being around 235 pounds. “It’s just so hard when you’re not doing any football activity outside of working out, so that last offseason was terrible. I came into the season, and I was like, ‘Bro, this is going to be a long season for me to get in shape.’ It took me like five games to get in shape finally.

“Just coming into [organized team activities] this year, you get to practice, you get to train, you get to do whatever you want.”

After waiting his turn to start at LSU behind current Tampa Bay inside linebacker Devin White, Queen was viewed as a raw talent compared to many first-round picks, meaning he was the kind of rookie who most needed a normal offseason. From that perspective, Queen’s struggles should be less surprising and his accomplishments more appreciated.

This spring, the coaching staff has provided no shortage of opportunities for Queen and the other young inside linebackers like Malik Harrison to work on their coverage with Lamar Jackson and the offense working extensively through the air during voluntary workouts. Regardless of the outcome, practicing against a Pro Bowl tight end in Mark Andrews on a regular basis should spark some growth.

“You see it in the passing game, the pass skeletons [and] the half-line-type things that we do that are teaching periods, repetition periods,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Those are immensely valuable, especially at a position like inside backer where you’re in the middle of everything and things are always moving fast around you, and you have to make split-second type of reaction-type decisions. It’s been great for him.”

Acknowledging a tendency to “think too much about stuff” and how he took his mistakes from last year “personally,” Queen says he’s really taken to new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan for “caring so much like a real father” and being so invested in helping make him a better player. When former linebackers coach Mike Macdonald accepted the defensive coordinator position at Michigan in January, Harbaugh and Martindale turned to a more experienced voice to help nurture the young inside linebackers room headlined by Queen.

Now wearing the No. 6 jersey — “single-digit swag” as he called it — after switching from No. 48, Queen says the game is slowing down in his second year and he’s ready to add more consistency between those splash plays from a year ago. He’s eager to validate why he was just the third inside linebacker to be selected in the first round in Ravens history, joining Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and four-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.

“It’s just simplifying everything, and just the experience is patting down,” Queen said. “I’m learning it. I really can’t wait for the season to start, so everybody can see how much work I’ve put in to be better.”