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Ravens Look To Fill Key Vacancies On Defense As 2019 Season Looms

July 10, 2019
Heading into the 2018 season, the Ravens had the unusual luxury of returning virtually every starter on defense. The result was a cohesive, mature group that ranked No. 1 overall and No. 2 in scoring defense and led the Ravens to the AFC North title. 

But turnover on NFL rosters is an annual staple, and while the Ravens relished defensive stability last season, the pendulum has swung the other way this year. The Ravens lost five defensive starters in an exodus that owner Steve Bisciotti has called "a shock to the system."

Consider who the Ravens lost:

- Linebacker Terrell Suggs, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick and the franchise record holder in games played (229) and sacks (132.5), signed a free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals.

- Linebacker C.J. Mosley, the heart of the Ravens' defense from 2014-2018, made the Pro Bowl four times in five seasons in Baltimore before being signed away by the New York Jets.

- Safety Eric Weddle, who made the Pro Bowl in all three of his seasons in Baltimore, was released as a salary-cap casualty before signing on with the Los Angeles Rams.

- Linebacker Za'Darius Smith led the Ravens in sacks this past year (8.5) and parlayed that into a big free-agent pay day with the Green Bay Packers.

- Defensive end Brent Urban started all 16 games in 2018 and was signed to a free-agent deal by the Tennessee Titans.

The losses hit every level of the defense and reverberate on the field, in the locker room and in the meeting rooms, with some of the most respected and vocal leaders no longer around.  

"It's obviously something you definitely can't not notice," safety Tony Jefferson said. "Those guys are big, big talents in the NFL. ... Words can't really describe what they mean to everybody in this building, but that's how the business works. 

"It may not have been how we wanted it to roll," Jefferson added, "but we have to roll either way."

To paraphrase former Orioles manager Buck Showalter, you can be sure that other teams aren't sitting around feeling sorry for the Ravens. And as Jefferson suggested, the Ravens are moving on as well, confident that new faces and new leaders will emerge for coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale.

"I'm not worried about it," Bisciotti said on a conference call with season-ticket holders in May. "I'm very confident with the guys that are going to replace the players that we lost."

The Ravens have addressed those vacancies in a variety of ways, turning to free agency, the draft and the promotion of in-house candidates to more prominent roles. Whether that process is successful can't truly be known until games begin in September, but a robust, tenacious defense would again be a major assist for a rebuilt offense led by second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Making A Splash At Safety

The Ravens addressed the loss of Weddle by making their biggest free-agent splash of the offseason, signing former Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal, the largest they have ever given a player outside the organization. The six-time Pro Bowl pick and anchor of the Seahawks' famed "Legion of Boom" secondary is four years younger than Weddle and gives the Ravens a ball-hawking free safety with 28 career interceptions.  

Thomas, whose nine-year tenure in Seattle ended acrimoniously after contract negotiations broke down and he got hurt, said he welcomed the chance to come to an organization with a tradition of defensive excellence. 

"I have that type of swagger," Thomas said. "It's a historic franchise, so I definitely have an opportunity to bring my blueprint to the table."

With Thomas and Jefferson manning the back end, and with the Ravens returning perhaps the deepest cornerback group in the league led by Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young, the Ravens are rightfully optimistic about their secondary. 

Bringing The Pressure

Give any NFL quarterback enough time, though, and he will find holes in the secondary, and the Ravens' most pressing concern this summer will be developing pass rushers to succeed Za'Darius Smith and Suggs, whose departure to his hometown Cardinals on a two-year, $10 million deal took Bisciotti by surprise. 

Matthew Judon (seven sacks last year) returns to anchor the outside linebacker group, but the fact that the Ravens made a play for several pass-rushing free agents this offseason suggested a level of concern with holdovers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Neither has produced to his Day Two draft status during his first two seasons with the team, and they probably enter training camp this summer on the roster bubble after the Ravens drafted record-setting pass rusher Jaylon Ferguson -- whose 45 career sacks topped the former FBS mark held by Suggs -- and signed free agents Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee. 

McPhee, 30, returns to the Ravens five seasons after he was signed away to a lucrative free-agent deal, but injuries have taken their toll. Ray is an intriguing addition as a former first-round draft pick who dealt with a perpetual wrist issue and fell out of favor in Denver. Still just 25, Ray comes to Baltimore motivated to prove he can be a difference-maker once again. He had a career-best eight sacks in 2016. 

"This Is His Time"

The Ravens' most significant loss was probably Mosley, the anchor in the middle of Baltimore's defense pretty much since he arrived as a rookie in 2014. Unlike at safety and outside linebacker, the Ravens made no significant free-agent signings at inside linebacker, nor did they address the position in the draft. (General manager Eric DeCosta said that outside a couple of elite talents, it was an underwhelming draft class at inside linebacker.)

That ramps up the pressure on Patrick Onwuasor, who is expected to step into Mosley's role at middle linebacker, wearing the microphone helmet and directing the formations and the checks. 

"This is his time," Bisciotti said.

Onwuasor -- who described himself as "kind of soft-spoken" -- said he's been challenged by Thomas and others this spring to be a more vocal leader. 

"He's done a great job with that," head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's taking charge. We always say, ‘A good defense is a loud defense.' We want to communicate at the highest possible level."

Onwuasor has started 25 games during the past two years, becoming the latest in a long line of undrafted inside linebackers to become vital cogs in the Ravens' defense. Another undrafted inside linebacker, Chris Board, is competing with Kenny Young for the starting spot alongside Onwuasor, but it's still a dangerously thin position, and it will surprise no one if the Ravens add a veteran inside linebacker later this summer. 

For now, though, it's full speed ahead for a Ravens team that is confident in the roster they've constructed.

"You guys see a lot of new faces, and I see a lot of new opportunities," third-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "A lot of guys, especially in my draft class and the class last year, are stepping into bigger roles. ... [There's] a lot of opportunity, and I'm just excited to see guys emerge into these new players and new leaders."

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 255: June/July 2019 

Originally published June 19, 2019