It’s time to take stock of the Ravens defensive roster again.
As usual, I’ll split the roster into 5 qualitative categories relative to the ultimate master, the salary cap. Note all snap numbers and percentages are for the regular season.
Young Producers (2): Chuck Clark, Marlon Humphrey
These are players on their first contract who are already starting (or should be) and are playing well. A team needs as many of these players as possible to continually outperform the salary cap.
Judon and Pierce are both UFAs (and moved to the market value category), which cuts the size of this group in half. That is a red flag that this draft needs to produce an influx of quality youth on defense.
Humphrey, the team’s 2018 MVP, had another fine season in (primarily) a slot role forced upon him by the injury to Tavon Young. He played effectively, but should be better in a full season on the outside.
Chuck Clark stepped in as the signal caller at strong safety when Tony Jefferson was injured. In addition to his own fine play and versatility, the fact he’s wearing the green dot allows for substitution for both ILB spots. That helped fill a gaping hole in the Ravens pass defense. Clark will enter the final year of his rookie deal and both he and the Ravens should be incented to reach an early extension which splits the benefits of contract value and security.
Developmental (7): Anthony Averett, Tyus Bowser, Deshon Elliott, Jaylon Ferguson, Daylon Mack, Iman Marshall, Chris Wormley
These players are all still on their rookie deals, but something is holding them back from consistent performance, a starting role, or both. We hope that most, if not all, of these players will emerge to be young producers quickly. In truth, some are running out of time to do so. Let’s look individually to see why I have tagged them as I have and what each needs to do to move up:
- Averett: He was among the defensive stars in the finale against the Steelers, but he took a step back in 2019. While his snaps almost tripled, his early-season play was a factor in the decision to trade for Marcus Peters. He will enter his 3rd season and may be the Ravens 4th CB. That’s a good spot to get playing time and earn a starting role in case of injury.
- Bowser: Tyus generated some pressure in 2019 and was used most commonly as an edge in the Ravens racecar dime package. His role as a 2nd Sam linebacker provides flexibility to the pass rush, so his 2020 spot should not be in jeopardy, particularly if Judon leaves in free agency.
- Elliott: He flashed in limited duty through 6 weeks of 2019, but lost most of a 2nd straight season to injury. He provides much-needed youth at safety and how the dime and back-end roles are split will be fun to watch in 2020.
- Ferguson: Jaylon had a trial by fire as a rookie OLB with the injury to Pernell McPhee. He improved significantly as an edge-setter as the season progressed, but with increased snaps, his limitations as a pass rusher became more apparent. He is the defender I expect can take the biggest step forward in 2020 if he can learn to rely more on his hands for pass rush.
- Mack: Daylon played just 8 snaps as a rookie, all in week 4. After several weeks inactive behind Zach Sieler, he was placed on IR and the Ravens acquired both Domata Peko and Justin Ellis. The Ravens may need him to take Pierce’s spot in 2020, but at a minimum, they need him to contribute as a rotational defensive lineman.
- Marshall: He was placed on IR immediately after initial rosters were formed and returned to play 3 games in the final 6 weeks, primarily on special teams. The Ravens will be well served to find out what they have in training camp with both Averett and Marshall.
- Wormley: His snaps increased as the Ravens played more packages with 3 DL (base and jumbo nickel) down the stretch, but he needs to make a bigger impact as a pass rusher to move up.
The group should be supplemented by the draft, but it is undeniably light at present.
Veterans Playing for Market Value (15): Josh Bynes*, Brandon Carr, LJ Fort, Matthew Judon*, Anthony Levine*, Pernell McPhee*, Domata Peko*, Marcus Peters, Michael Pierce*, Jimmy Smith*, Earl Thomas, Brynden Trawick*, Jihad Ward*, Brandon Williams, Tavon Young
A large chunk of the cap is (or will be) spent here and these players are the ones (generally) who are worth it. This group includes 4 cornerstone defenders under contract for 2020, 2 other contributors under contract (Carr, Fort), and a whopping 9 UFAs.
Brandon Williams played well in 2019 and is one of the cornerstones entering 2020, particularly if Michael Pierce is lost to free agency. Similarly, Earl Thomas and Tavon Young are each entering the second years of multi-year deals and will still be in Baltimore next season. Young’s return to the slot should improve the defense both with his own play and Humphrey’s return to the outside. Marcus Peters is the other cornerstone and has just inked a 3-year deal.
Several players in this group (Bynes, Fort, Peko, and Ward) were acquired during the season as part of a successful restructure of the defense. Bynes, McPhee, Peko, and Ward all played well at a bargain price in 2019. Each of the 4 may have more value to the Ravens than another team. Ward is the only player under age 31 (he’ll be 26 in May), but as such, he may be the player who draws interest.
Levine will be 33 in March and has had a great run as a dime back and special teams performer. While he effectively lost his dime role to Brandon Carr (Clark played dime, Carr SS), it’s entirely possible he could be signed to another 1 or 2-year deal to play special teams and participate in quarter packages.
Brandon Carr’s durability has continued to be a mainstay for the Ravens defense. Despite losing his starting CB role at midseason, he played on the back end in dime packages and finished the season playing 76% of snaps. The team can save $6M by cutting him, which is a lot to pay for the team’s 6th DB.
The biggest offseason decisions lie with Matthew Judon and Michael Pierce. Judon is a reasonable candidate for the franchise tag, which will incent both he and the Ravens to make a long-term deal. Pierce has made a big impact in 4 years with the Ravens, but the Ravens will need to commit to a long-term deal to keep him and I believe they will only be able to afford 1 of Judon and Pierce.
Veteran Cap/Value Concerns (1): Tony Jefferson
Tony Jefferson has been a fine player for 3 seasons with the Ravens, but enters the final year of his deal with a potential cap savings of $7 million. Given Clark’s play, the timing of his injury was not optimal.
Transitional (9): Otaro Alaka, Chris Board, Justin Ellis*, Patrick Onwuasor*, Jordan Richards*, Fish Smithson, Brynden Trawick*
I see no obvious future as a contributor for any of these players. Many are on IR and some will be UFAs at the end of this season. Alaka and Board are ERFA players, but will compete with rookie linebackers in camp. The Ravens will probably want a special teams player or 2, which could leave room for Richards or Trawick to sign a cheap 2-year deal.
Special thanks to Brian McFarland, to whose contract details I referred frequently while writing these pieces.