Operating with a salary cap $15.7 million lower than a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ravens have elected to part ways with their most consistent inside linebacker from the 2020 season.
Veteran L.J. Fort didn’t have his option exercised for 2021, making him a non-compensable unrestricted free agent and creating $2.25 million in cap space. That flexibility as well as the early draft picks invested in inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison last year prompted the organization to move on from the reliable Fort. Baltimore also re-signed fourth-year inside linebacker Chris Board to a one-year, $1.6 million guaranteed contract on Tuesday.
In 14 games last season, the 31-year-old Fort collected a career-best 53 tackles, a forced fumble, two pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries, one of which was returned for a touchdown in the Week 2 win at Houston. Grading an impressive ninth among all qualified off-ball linebackers by Pro Football Focus, Fort played 36 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps (a career-high 381) and was easily the Ravens’ top inside linebacker in coverage, meaning his exit will put pressure on some combination of Queen, Harrison, and Board to take a step forward in that department in 2021.
Along with ex-Raven Josh Bynes, Fort arrived on the scene prior to Week 5 of the 2019 season when the Ravens were struggling mightily at the inside linebacker position. He quickly stepped into a meaningful role and helped stabilize the position group, which prompted the Ravens to sign him to a contract extension less than six weeks later. Prior to his time with Baltimore, Fort had only made three defensive starts over his first seven years in the NFL spent with Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Cincinnati, New England, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, seeing most of his action on special teams and playing more than 100 defensive snaps in a season just once.
The Ravens clearly expect big things from Queen, their 2020 first-round pick whose play as a rookie was up and down despite the LSU product being the only player in the league with at least 70 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and a defensive touchdown. Harrison, a third-round pick from Ohio State, performed mostly as expected with his best work coming against early-down runs. Board also saw more playing time late in the 2020 season and will likely compete with Harrison for snaps next to Queen. Still, the absence of Fort serving as a safety net will put more pressure on a young and inexperienced group that will be guided by new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan.
Fort, a 2012 undrafted free agent from Northern Iowa, is the second Ravens veteran to be cut to create cap space this offseason after former Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram was released days after the playoff loss at Buffalo, a move that saved $5 million in room for 2021.