Seeing the reaction of his Ravens teammates upon learning the news of Terrell Suggs’ season-ending Achilles injury on Sunday reiterated that you can’t fully quantify the veteran linebacker’s worth.
A leader on the field and in the locker room, Suggs is the last remaining member of the old guard of Baltimore defense that included Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata and brings more than a decade of experience and knowledge to meeting rooms. Known for his humor and ability to keep a locker room loose, the 32-year-old is also the undisputed leader of a unit that’s continued playing at a high level despite undergoing seismic changes since Super Bowl XLVII.
Those intangibles aside, how do the Ravens go about replacing the six-time Pro Bowl selection and 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year?
It won’t be easy.
To be fair, we’re talking about a player who will turn 33 next month and is fighting a battle against Father Time that nobody wins in the end. This may have been a season in which Suggs rapidly declined, but he played like a Pro Bowl-caliber player in 2014 and the Ravens were still counting on big production from him this season.
Further complicating the challenge is the Ravens already needing to replace the production of situational pass rusher Pernell McPhee, who signed a long-term contract with the Chicago Bears in the offseason.
In addition to combining for 19 1/2 sacks a year ago, Suggs and McPhee registered a total of 32 quarterback hits and 77 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. They combined to play 1,415 defensive snaps and rushed the passer on 886 of those.
Who will step up or step in?
Naturally, it won’t be a one-for-one approach as McPhee often lined up as an interior rusher in passing situations, a role in which you were already going to see more of defensive linemen such as Timmy Jernigan and Carl Davis this season. Elvis Dumervil (628 defensive snaps in 2014) and Courtney Upshaw (542 snaps) will see expanded roles, but there’s a hidden cost to those two playing more. You don’t want the 31-year-old Dumervil to wear down and become less effective as a pass rusher while Upshaw has rarely shown the ability to disrupt the pocket when given opportunities in the past.
One of the secrets of the Ravens’ ferocious pass rush a year ago was defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ ability to divide the workload among Suggs, Dumervil, Upshaw, and McPhee at the two outside linebacker positions. It kept the veterans fresh and shielded the younger linebackers’ limitations over the course of a full season.
Now, the Ravens will have no choice but to lean more on Dumervil and Upshaw while turning to rookie fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith, who was likened to McPhee when he was drafted out of the University of Kentucky. Maybe he’ll be ready to contribute immediately, but the Ravens deactivating him for the season opener doesn’t suggest he’s on the verge of making a major impact in his first season.
Who else is out there beyond simply shifting reserve Albert McClellan to outside linebacker or promoting rookie free agent Brennen Beyer from the practice squad?
General manager Ozzie Newsome could kick the tires on a veteran such as Dwight Freeney or Shaun Phillips to serve in a situational capacity — the Ravens currently have less than $4 million in salary cap space — but no available options will come close to replacing Suggs, who PFF graded as Baltimore’s second-best defender against the run a year ago. Many fixate on sack totals to assess an outside linebacker’s worth, but Suggs is a three-down player who played nearly 250 more snaps than any other Baltimore outside backer a year ago and has been exceptional playing the run in addition to wreaking havoc on the quarterback over the years.
His injury doesn’t spell doom for the 2015 season as the Ravens have continued winning despite injuries to star players in the past, but there’s no clear answer to replacing his strong play or leadership.
At least not one you feel good about.