As the future of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata appears to be moving toward a resolution after months of speculation, little focus has been placed on the man who could replace him on the starting defensive line.
The 22-year-old Timmy Jernigan provided a good return in his rookie season after the Ravens selected him with the 48th overall pick last May, but does the Florida State product satisfy the “80-20″ rule quoted by some as justification to release Ngata if the sides are unable to work out a contract extension in the coming weeks? It’s easy to look at Ngata’s scheduled $16 million cap figure for 2015 and a potential $8.5 million in salary-cap savings and sign off on a divorce from a financial standpoint, but general manager Ozzie Newsome must be sure a deep — but young — defensive line has the means to replace the five-time Pro Bowl selection.
Despite missing five games due to knee and ankle injuries in his rookie season in Baltimore, Jernigan flashed his potential on more than one occasion, but did the Ravens see enough in his part-time role to envision heavier responsibilities as soon as this coming season? At least one veteran teammate was impressed as Jernigan filled in for Ngata during the latter’s four-game suspension for Adderall use.
“He’s a dog. He’s going to be a really good football player for a long time in the National Football League,” defensive end Chris Canty said in late December. “I noticed that when I came here for the minicamp [last June], just his aggressive play, his physical nature, his quick twitch jumping off the ball. He’s got a lot of great attributes. He’s constantly learning from [defensive line coach Clarence Brooks] and some of the other vets on the nuances of the game.”
It may be that four-game ban that provided the Ravens with the necessary leverage and confidence to negotiate more rigidly with Ngata this offseason. In four games as his primary replacement to close the regular season, Jernigan collected two sacks and seven tackles and earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in all but one contest — the 25-13 loss to Houston in which little went right for the Ravens.
Prior to suffering the ankle injury that forced him out of the regular-season finale against Cleveland and the wild-card round against Pittsburgh, Jernigan played in more than half of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in three straight games and fared well in an increased role. It was the only time all season he held an expanded role as he typically served as a replacement for Ngata or Brandon Williams every few series and as a rush specialist in certain passing situations.
Of all 3-4 defensive ends who appeared in at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps, Jernigan earned PFF’s 14th-highest cumulative grade while Ngata finished ninth. The optimist views such an assessment as there being room for Jernigan to grade even higher with more opportunities while skeptics may wonder if extensive playing time might expose the young defensive lineman’s shortcomings.
At 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, the undersized Jernigan doesn’t compare to Ngata’s 6-foot-4, 340-pound presence, but few players do. And let’s not forget how third-year nose tackle Brandon Williams will fit into the picture after emerging as an above-average player in his first season as a starter. Comparing Jernigan’s skill set to Ngata in his prime would be unfair, but his quickness, strength, and leverage at the 3-technique project well — even if he lacks Ngata’s massive frame — against the run and as a rusher.
In 330 defensive snaps last year, Jernigan amassed 23 tackles and four sacks. Ngata collected 31 tackles, two sacks, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions in 546 defensive snaps. According to PFF, Jernigan’s 12 quarterback hurries and seven quarterback hits outdid Ngata (14 hurries and two quarterback hits) and the rookie registered 14 “stops” (defined as the number of solo tackles including sacks made which constituted an offensive failure) compared to Ngata’s 16.
Durability is a question as meniscus surgery sidelined Jernigan for four games early in the season, but he rebounded quickly from the ankle injury in Week 17 to return for the divisional round after only a one-game absence. Returning to a rotational role, Jernigan sacked New England quarterback Tom Brady and collected another tackle in the 35-31 loss that ended Baltimore’s season.
It might be unfair to ask whether Jernigan will be the better player in 2015, but wondering if the young defensive tackle will outperform Ngata by 2016 and 2017 when the veteran is approaching his mid-30s is an entirely different matter. And that could be the tipping point as the Ravens try to determine a dollar figure that makes sense for extending their 31-year-old defensive tackle, who had a strong 2014 season but battled nagging injuries that hindered his play in the previous two years.
“Once he puts it all together and the game slows down for him, it’s going to be scary,” said Canty late last season about Jernigan’s potential. “It’s going to be really scary. He’s going to be really, really good.”
Depending on what happens with Ngata, the Ravens may need Jernigan’s full potential to be realized sooner rather than later.