The Baltimore Ravens current roster composition has encouraged many to conclude they will apply their ‘best player available’ criteria to a limited number of positions in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. Wide receiver is their most obvious need, followed by cornerback, safety, outside linebacker and possibly offensive tackle if Ricky Wagner departs in free agency. Defensive end should definitely be among the positions considered with the 16th overall selection.
Two of the Ravens three starters on the defensive line, Brandon Williams and Lawrence Guy, are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Timmy Jernigan, the third starter on the line, will be a free agent next offseason. These three starters combined for seven total sacks in 2016, and failed to earn a single sack after Week 10. This pitiful production greatly contributed to the team wide struggles in pressuring opposing quarterbacks down the stretch.
Behind the starters, the Ravens have depth but few proven commodities. Undrafted free agent Michael Pierce is the most promising piece, he showed consistent pocket collapsing ability throughout his rookie season. Former third round pick Carl Davis has made minimal contributions in his first two season and was billed as a run stuffer primarily. Defensive tackle Willie Henry has penetrating ability, but did not see the field at all in 2016. 5-technique Brent Urban struggled with injuries and has accumulated three sacks in 22 games for the Ravens. And Bronson Kaufusi broke his ankle in August, essentially wasting his rookie year. Kaufusi may end up at SAM outside linebacker anyway if he cannot add the strength required to control two gaps on the defensive line.
The advantage of generating pressure from the defensive line cannot be overstated. Even in the unlikely event the Ravens keep their starting trio together in 2017 and beyond, they should make an effort to improve the pass rushing production from the line. The ability to make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket without blitzing would allow the Ravens to matchup with the most versatile, dangerous offenses. Furthermore, pressure from the interior is more effective than pressure off the edge at disrupting the efficient, rhythm short passing game that New England and other teams employ.
In 2006, the Baltimore Ravens defense was the best in the NFL in yards per game, yards per play, first downs allowed per game, interception percentage, sack percentage, third down stop percentage and points per game. That season, their dominant defense carried the team to 13 regular season wins and one of only two post season byes in franchise history.
The 2006 defense was stout against the run with defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg keeping inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott clean. Corners Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle formed a lockdown duo to shut down passing attacks, along with the ballhawking Ed Reed at free safety. Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas formed a potent combination of edge rushers. But defensive end Trevor Pryce was the player who took that defense from good to great, and lead the team with 13 sacks in 2006.
The 2017 draft crop includes several intriguing defensive end prospects. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and FSU’s DeMarcus Walker are both highly productive, polished pass rushers, however neither has the frame of a prototypical two gap 5-technique. Malik McDowell from Michigan State does fit the bill as a defensive end in the Trevor Pryce mold.
As an early entrant into the draft with inconsistent production, McDowell represents a different type of player than the Ravens usually target early in the draft. McDowell broke out as a sophomore for the Spartans, posting 13 tackles for a loss, four and a half sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick-six. Last season however, his production was cut in half as he dealt with an ankle injury and a weaker supporting cast. McDowell has a strong bull rush, good burst and lateral quickness, and a high motor. Still, he is a high ceiling low floor type of prospect, more of a swing for a home run than the Ravens usual ‘solid double’ strategy.
If McDowell does not suit the front office’s fancy, Chris Wormley from Michigan and Davon Godchaux of LSU are a pair of Day 2 prospects have the skillsets to excel at 5-tech. UNC’s Nazair Jones, Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones, Villnova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon and Arkansas’s Deatrich Wise represent high upside Day 3 defensive end prospects.
Before the extent of Eugene Monroe’s issues were revealed last offseason, many Ravens fans were disappointed that the team selected offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley over defensive end DeForest Buckner. With the benefit of hindsight, Stanley was clearly an excellent choice considering the top notch pass blocking he displayed late in the season, and the paramount importance of blindside protection to the Ravens offense. Still, Buckner posted 73 tackles and six sacks during his rookie campaign. He certainly could have helped the Ravens defensive front avoid their 2016 late season collapse.
Clearly, the Ravens must upgrade their pass rush for the 2017 season. If an elite three down edge defender is available when they come on the clock, they should run to the podium. But they should not reach for a situational edge rusher, they already have several of those on the depth chart.
Drafting a pass rushing defensive end could be just as, or possibly even more impactful to the defensive’s overall performance than another outside linebacker. Depending on how their draft board falls, the Ravens should absolutely consider drafting a defensive end with their first round pick.