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Baltimore Ravens training camp battles: Defensive Line

After an excruciatingly long offseason, training camp finally begins later this week. The defensive line is a position group that is fully capable of making the Ravens defense fearsome again. The young group of down lineman on the Ravens training camp roster have exciting untapped potential and proven interior pass rushing ability.

Traditionally, the Ravens have carried between five and seven defensive lineman on their regular-season 53-man roster. Six or seven lineman seems to be a realistic projection for the 2016 active roster considering the amount of draft capital the Ravens have used on their defensive line over the last several drafts.

Nose Tackle:

Brandon Williams, perhaps the best player on the Ravens defense, anchors the entire line. He is entering a contract year, and will be hoping to increase his sack numbers to maximize his upcoming payday. Williams played 69% of the defensive snaps last season, a high frequency for a wide-bodied space eater. Williams is an excellent two-gap run plugger who is proficient at occupying blockers, shedding to make tackles for a loss and using surprising explosiveness when chasing quarterbacks.

Carl Davis, the second-year player from Iowa, appears to be second in line at zero-technique. Davis started last season strong, showing good strength and block eating ability, before hitting the proverbial rookie wall down the stretch. Davis also showed his skill in knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage. He will be looking to make a bigger impact in 2016 after an offseason in the weight room and increased motivation under new DL coach Joe Cullen.

Michael Pierce is an undrafted rookie with elite strength who will work with the third-string in an attempt to keep the other tackles fresh for the regular season and earn a place on the practice squad.

Defensive Tackle:

Timmy Jernigan is the starter and poised for a breakout season after posting eight sacks over his first two seasons. Jernigan is stout at the point of attack and adept at shooting the gap to make plays in the backfield. He plays with a mean streak, has played some of his best ball late in the season and is an ideal three-technique for the Ravens hybrid defense. After playing in just over half of the Ravens defensive snaps last year, look for Jernigan to eclipse 60% of snaps next season with better conditioning.

Willie Henry, a fourth-round rookie from Michigan, is hoping to contribute on passing downs in 2016. Henry showed good power and burst in college. He has a developed understanding stunts and twists. Look for Henry to give Jernigan a rest on long drives and possibly line up next to him in nickel or dime alignments.

Kapron Lewis-Moore seems like a longshot to make the roster after struggling with injuries and playing in less than 5% of the defensive snaps last season. He does have some positional versatility but his limited production should result in the Ravens giving the final DL spots to younger players with more upside.

Trevon Coley is another undrafted rookie who will compete for reps and hopes to make the practice squad.

Defensive End:

Lawrence Guy is the presumed starter at five-technique. Guy is a versatile player who accumulated 4.5 sacks for the Ravens last season. With Chris Canty out of the picture, Guy should bring more pass rush from the end position. He is not a great run defender, and can be driven off the ball occasionally, so sliding him further outside could be helpful.

Brent Urban has suited up in only six games over his first two seasons due to injury. He has great size and could give Guy a run for the starting end spot. Or he could end up not making the roster at all. This training camp is pivotal for Urban’s career.

Bronson Kaufusi is a third-round rookie who is behind the curve at this point after missing offseason workouts with a back injury. On top of that, he needs to add bulk and strength against the run. Kaufusi is most likely to see the field in pass rushing packages or even as a stand-up outside backer.

Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon are listed as outside linebackers, but could earn some reps at defensive end, especially in four-man fronts. They both feature the requisite bulk at 275 pounds apiece and would bring refined pass rush skills to the line.

Bottom Line:

Williams, Jernigan, Davis, Henry and Guy are almost guaranteed to make the final roster, and be chosen as the weekly gameday actives once the regular season is under way. The main training camp objectives for this group is to help Jernigan and Davis take the next step in their development while familiarizing Henry with the system.

The other five true defensive lineman will be competing for one or two roster spots, with Urban and Kaufusi the most likely to earn the selection. Depending on how the competition at other positions shake out, especially linebacker, Urban and Kaufusi could end up in a direct competition for a single roster spot, which would be an interesting development since both are highly regarded young players. If Kaufusi is beaten out by Urban and the Ravens cannot afford to carry seventh lineman, expect him to be stashed on injured reserve.

Overall, the Ravens defensive lineman are tremendously versatile.  Since the best lines employ a strong rotation of bodies, deciding on a starter at each position is not vital.  Williams and Jernigan are the standard bearers for the unit and will assuredly play the bulk of the snaps.  Training camp will be focused on determining the pecking order for the third through sixth or seventh lineman, and slotting players in the substitution packages that best suit their skills.