The Ravens rookie outside linebacker was thrown into the mix suddenly early in the season, with pro bowler and former DPOY Terrell Sugg's season coming to an abrupt halt in week 1. The Ravens were left with no contingency plan for Suggs, and had to rely on their other pro bowler, Elvis Dumervil to play increased snaps on one side, with run stopping specialist Courtney Upshaw and the rookie Smith holding down the fort on the other side. A subsequent signing of Jason Babin to share the load was a big miss, with Babin being inactive for weeks, and when he did finally play making boneheaded mistake after boneheaded mistake. Babin, who was signed over other players with better pedigrees like Dwight Freeney, was released within weeks of his first game action.
So the Ravens were forced to rely on young Za'Darius Smith, the rookie 4th rounder out of Kentucky as the primary backup behind Dumervil and Upshaw. He has come on strong in the second half of the season, and his stat line now matches those of one of the Ravens recent stud pass rushers in his rookie season.
Which pass rusher is that? None other than current Chicago Bear Pernell McPhee!
Ravens rookie season comparisons: OLB Za'Darius Smith: 29 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 PD. OLB Pernell McPhee: 16 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 PDs.— Garrett Downing (@gdowning14) December 30, 2015
While Za'Darius is by no means a finished product, his play in recent weeks is a promising sign for a 2016 Ravens team relying on a 33 year old Suggs coming off his 2nd ACL injury, and a 32 year old Dumervil. The Ravens will have to either resign former 2nd rounder Courtney Upshaw, an unrestricted free agent who was a key player on the 2012 Super Bowl squad, or bring in a replacement through the draft or free agency. Many are hoping the team will use a premium pick on a pass rusher, and if the right one is available GM Ozzie Newsome will not hesitate to pull the trigger, regardless of Za'Darius Smith's development. Newsome was rumored to have gauged the price of 2014 #5 pick Khalil Mack at draft time, who is currently becoming one of the better pass rushers in the NFL. One thing is for sure, the Ravens can never have too many pass rushers. Za'Darius looks like he is just next up in a long line of Ravens pass rushers, so hopefully he can take his impressive rookie production and build on it to become the Ravens next pro bowler at the outside linebacker position.