The Ravens improved their defensive line more than any other position group on paper this offseason by adding five-time Pro Bowl selection Calais Campbell and former Super Bowl champion Derek Wolfe.
But it appears they’ll be without an important depth piece to begin the 2020 season as rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike remains sidelined with an injury suffered in last Saturday’s scrimmage at M&T Bank Stadium. His absence will further test a unit already leaning heavily on Campbell, Wolfe, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, who are all on the wrong side of age 30.
Head coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t disclose specifics of Madubuike’s ailment or exactly when the third-round rookie from Texas A&M is expected to return, but his availability for the season opener against Cleveland is in clear doubt.
“It’ll be a little bit, but it won’t be [anything] close to season-ending,” Harbaugh said. “It won’t even be multiple weeks during the season. He got caught up in a little pile. He’s kind of I would say a little more than day-to-day — maybe week-to-week here for a couple weeks. We’ll just see where he’s at, but he’ll be OK.”
Madubuike’s absence should immediately improve the roster standing of veteran nose tackle Justin Ellis, whom some had projected to be on the bubble this summer. It may also press fifth-round rookie Broderick Washington into active duty on game days, especially against a run-oriented opponent like the Browns in Week 1.
Of course, the Ravens have rarely worked out of their “base” 3-4 defense in recent seasons and can also turn to hybrid rushers like Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward to provide some situational snaps, but there are high hopes for Madubuike, who has flashed some skill as an interior pass rusher this summer.
How even a short-term absence might impact a first-year player already trying to overcome an abbreviated training camp remains to be seen, but early reviews about his approach have been favorable.
“The kid can play. He’s going to be a good football player. He’s a great rookie,” said Wolfe about Madubuike last week. “He’s strong, he’s tough, physical. He wants to be good. He listens, he writes down everything. That’s all you can ask for. He’s always asking questions, always trying to get better.”
Fitting Dobbins into crowded backfield
There’s been no shortage of camp hype for rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, whom Harbaugh said is “definitely going to have probably a significant role” in a backfield already including Pro Bowl veteran Mark Ingram, short-yardage bruiser Gus Edwards, and 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill.
Despite only so many carries available in a run-first rushing attack led by record-setting rushing quarterback and reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, Dobbins should be in the mix immediately as a rusher or as a receiver out of the backfield, an area in which he’s especially shined during camp.
“He’s looked really good in practice. He works really hard. He’s just the most coachable guy,” Harbaugh said. “He has a lot of talent, and he’s very coachable. He wants to be good; he wants to play. He’s confident. Confidence plus coachability plus talent — it’s a pretty good combination, and he has all of that.”
It’s difficult to predict whose workload might suffer the most due to Dobbins’ presence considering the 30-year-old Ingram ranked seventh in the NFL at 0.5 yards per carry above expected, according to Next Gen Stats. That metric indicates Ingram’s 5.04 yards per carry and 1,018 rushing yards weren’t simply a product of Greg Roman’s scheme and Jackson’s dynamic presence putting pressure on opposing fronts.
It’s reasonable to anticipate Dobbins taking a modest number of carries from Ingram and Jackson, but many have predicted the bulk of his touches coming at the expense of Edwards, who’s merely averaged 5.3 yards per carry over his first two seasons. Harbaugh doesn’t think anyone should be overlooking the 238-pound Edwards, however.
“He’s respected by defenses, and they know that he’s a must-stop player in terms of the way he runs the football,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to have a big role. He’s better than he was last year. When you watch him in training camp, he really has worked on the things that he could to improve. I think he’s going to be even better than he was last year, so I’m looking forward to seeing him play this year.”
But again, there’s only one football to go around.
No. 3 quarterback competition
The third-string quarterback job has been one of training camp’s more interesting competitions between 2019 sixth-round pick Trace McSorley and undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley.
Many assumed Huntley would have a difficult time without a normal spring or preseason to learn the offense, but Harbaugh acknowledged it will be “real tough” to decide on the third quarterback behind Jackson and veteran backup Robert Griffin III. Huntley has performed better overall in practices open to media, but gauging his grasp of the offense compared to McSorley’s edge in experience leaves some unknown, especially without being able to watch either play in preseason games this summer.
“We’ll see. They’re all doing well. I like what they’re doing,” Harbaugh said. “They’re in different stages of their careers. It plays out every day, but we like them both. We like all four of our guys. They’re all doing a good job, but they’re all in different places right now in their development.”
Regardless of which way the decision goes, the odd man out would figure to remain a candidate for the expanded 16-man practice squad.
The Ravens will conduct a closed practice at the stadium on Wednesday afternoon before returning to Owings Mills for three more practices leading up to Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline to trim the roster to 53 players.
“We have a script that we’re going to use. It’s not going to be a contact practice. It’s going to be an execution, operation practice,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of situational work, a lot of technique-type work. But it will be a competitive scrimmage like we had on Saturday night.”
In addition to Madubuike, McPhee, cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Josh Nurse, wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), running back Kenjon Barner (leg), and tight end Eli Wolf weren’t participating in the portion of Tuesday’s practice open to media.