With training camp beginning in two weeks and the preseason opener less than a month away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before players begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.
We continue on the defensive line, a group that includes one of the best run-stopping duos in the NFL and only two players over age 25. However, with the free-agent departures of Za’Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Brent Urban, the Ravens are looking for viable pass-rushing options both off the edge and inside. Smith and Urban frequently lined up as interior rushers last season, so defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will need at least a couple interior linemen to create pressure in the pocket. Returning veteran Pernell McPhee also has a chance to be part of that equation as someone moving to an interior spot in sub packages, but he’s officially listed as an outside linebacker.
It’s worth noting usage of the defensive line is certainly evolving in today’s game as the Ravens ran their “base” 3-4 defense just 16 percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. With at least five defensive backs on the field an overwhelming majority of the time, there are fewer and fewer instances of the nose tackle, 3-techinique tackle, and 5-technique end all being on the field at the same time. Defensive linemen capable of both rushing the passer and stopping the run have always been valuable, of course, but one-dimensional run stoppers are finding fewer snaps with the ever-increasing emphasis on the passing game.
Below is a look at several defensive linemen who stand out for various reasons:
The Man — Brandon Williams
Skinny: One could certainly argue the 30-year-old hasn’t played up to the five-year, $52.5 million deal signed in 2017, but he remains one of the better run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL and anchored a defense that allowed only 3.7 yards per carry in 2018. Williams played in every game for the fourth time in the last five years while his 517 defensive snaps led all returning Baltimore defensive linemen.
Old Reliable — Williams
Skinny: With the second-oldest defensive lineman on the current roster just 26 years old, there’s no choice here other than the 2013 third-round pick, who was named to the 2018 Pro Bowl as an alternate.
Under Fire — Michael Pierce
Skinny: Before showing up with weight and conditioning concerns that prompted John Harbaugh to pull him off the practice field last month, the run-wrecking Pierce had a strong argument as “The Man” of this position group. Instead, he’s under the microscope in a contract year despite grading as Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best interior defender in the NFL in 2018. Assuming the 26-year-old gets into ideal shape, his next step will be further improving his pass-rush ability to enhance his market value.
Up-and-Comer — Chris Wormley
Skinny: Urban didn’t sign with Tennessee until after the draft and received only a small one-year commitment, making it clear the Ravens had more than enough confidence in Wormley stepping into a bigger role at the 5-technique spot after injuries prompted him to be more of a 3-technique option in his second season. PFF graded the 2017 third-round pick as the NFL’s 67th-best interior defender last year, but he should receive plenty of opportunities as an inside rusher.
Sleeper — Zach Sieler
Skinny: The 2018 seventh-round pick from Ferris State was Ozzie Newsome’s final draft selection as general manager and played only 17 snaps as a rookie, but the Ravens love his 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame and didn’t keep him on the 53-man roster all last season without having bigger plans in mind. If Wormley doesn’t take a step forward, Sieler could easily push for some of his snaps.
The Rest — Willie Henry, Patrick Ricard, Daylon Mack, Gerald Willis
Skinny: Hernia surgery and then a season-ending back injury limited Henry to just three games and 82 snaps in 2018, but he appeared on the verge of securing a starting spot last summer and was coming off an impressive 2017 campaign in which he collected 3 1/2 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and five batted passes. Baltimore is counting on him to be healthy enough to serve as one of its primary interior rushers in the final year of his rookie deal. … Ricard’s versatility as a two-way player makes him more valuable, but he’s yet to stand out in limited defensive opportunities over his first two seasons. … Willis is a rookie free agent to watch after a turbulent college career that included multiple problems off the field and a 2018 campaign in which he recorded 18 tackles for a loss and four sacks to earn second-team All-America honors at Miami.