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Pass rusher is an understated need for the Ravens

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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

With free agency set to officially begin in less than a week and the NFL draft is scheduled at the end of next month, it’s abundantly clear what fans feel the Ravens’ biggest needs are. Wide receiver and tight end dominate every discussion about who Baltimore should pursue this off-season. Inside linebacker, offensive lineman, safety, and even backup quarterback all come next. However, pass rusher is a need that is being heavily overlooked.

Sure, the Ravens upped their sack total from 2016 (31) in 2017 (41), and second-year players Matthew Judon and Willie Henry showed growth as effective pass rushers, but the Ravens still failed to generate pressure when it mattered the most. All too often, in important games, opposing quarterbacks would march down the field against Baltimore for a game-winning drive. The Ravens’ pass rush would seemingly disappear in moments such as these.

When you fail to generate pressure on the quarterback, the secondary, no matter how good it is, will inevitably break down in coverage. We saw a fair amount of this with the Ravens in 2017, who had an impressive secondary that led the NFL in interceptions.

Terrell Suggs had his best season in years, with 11 sacks, but ultimately disappeared down the final stretch of games. Matthew Judon broke out with eight sacks of his own, but several of those came from the help of others and not just simply beating a block to make the sack. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce failed to deliver an interior pass rush, which made life much harder for the Ravens’ outside linebackers. Between the two, there was only one sack (Pierce) all season.

In a 3-4 defense, the three defensive linemen are usually run-stuffing behemoths such as Williams, who often requires a double-team. This helps to free up the other defensive linemen and outside linebackers to engage in one-on-one blocks. The Ravens’ defensive linemen were unable to beat one-on-one blocks consistently enough.

Baltimore needs a defensive lineman who can generate pressure on third-downs most of all. Willie Henry could possibly be this player, as he currently provides the most pass rush on the line. Chris Wormley, who the Ravens drafted in the third-round of the 2017 draft, is another possible candidate for this role. He saw limited playing time in his rookie season and was often inactive.

The Ravens are most likely set at outside linebacker for now, with the emergence of Matthew Judon, and the selections of Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams early in the draft last year. Either Bowser or Williams could have a breakout year in 2018, which would help the Ravens’ pass rush tremendously in itself, but they still need more production from their interior linemen.

Most fans will agree that the Ravens should use their first-round pick in this year’s draft on a player at an offensive skill-position, such as wide receiver Calvin Ridley if he falls to them at 16. Others will point to using the pick on an offensive tackle, such as Connor Williams or Mike McGlinchey, to go with Ronnie Stanley, who Baltimore selected sixth-overall in 2016, to form a bookend pair of franchise tackles on the offensive line. Some people will even say that selecting a linebacker to pair with C.J. Mosley, or a safety to groom under Eric Weddle would be a great option as well. Very few people entertain the idea of selecting a pass rusher in round one. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad choice though.

Players such as Vita Vea, Marcus Davenport, Da’Ron Payne, and Harold Landry could all bring a boost to the Ravens’ pass rush. Landry, in particular, could work well as a third-down situational pass rusher from the defensive line. With his smaller size for a defensive end, at six-foot-three and 252 pounds, the Ravens may view him as a 3-4 outside linebacker instead. They already have a potential situational pass rusher at outside linebacker in Tim Williams. Davenport, at six-foot-six and 264 pounds, would be a better fit as an end in the Ravens’ 3-4 defense.

Vea and Payne could help provide much-needed pressure from the center of the line. Vea has been compared to former Raven Haloti Ngata. While Payne is from Alabama, who has produced several quality defensive linemen at the NFL level under Nick Saban.

The key to a dominant defense is a suffocating pass rush. The Ravens could get back to their days of terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators by selecting a top pass rusher in this years draft.