While the Baltimore Ravens defense led the NFL in turnovers last season, they struggled down the stretch, and the team’s playoffs hopes were ended in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals when the unit was burned on the now infamous 4th-and-12 play.
The defense had 41 sacks a year ago, but other than play from Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon, not much of it came from the outside. Suggs and Judon combined for 19 of those 41 sacks last season. In 2018, Baltimore will look to get more production from outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Smith and Bowser combined for just 6.5 sacks last year. Williams was a non-factor all season, recording zero sacks, which was a big disappointment considering the expectations from his collegiate career at Alabama.
Smith is entering an important contract year after being drafted in the fourth round in 2015. While he had 5.5 sacks during his rookie campaign, Smith has not been able to reach that mark in the last two seasons. Smith will turn 26 in September, and he is certainly a candidate to have a breakout season that leads to a big contract.
Bowser showed potential in 2017, and he has room to grow heading into his sophomore season. Bowser started his rookie year strong, being voted the Rookie of the Week by fans on NFL.com for his performance against the Cleveland Browns in the Ravens home opener. After recording a sack and an interception in Week 1, his play trailed off, and he became primarily a special teams player. In recent OTAs and mini-camp, Bowser has drawn praise from coaches as well as the media during the open portion of practices.
The Ravens seem to be optimistic about their young crop of players ahead training camp, with head coach John Harbaugh noting during mini-camp that he expects big things from both Williams and Bowser. Baltimore is also finally transitioning Kamalei Correa back to outside linebacker, a position he succeeded at during his career at Boise State.
The preseason will shed light on how these players are developing and progressing. Early looks will also help the coaching staff determine whether they will need to bring in other options like outside linebacker Willie Young, who remains an unsigned free agent, to help Suggs and Judon in the pass-rush. A consistent pass-rush on the outside has been elusive over the last few years, despite the presence of Suggs as well as Elvis Dumervil when he was a Raven from 2013-2016. If Bowser, Williams, Smith and even Correa, can improve their output with new defensive coordinator Don Martindale at the helm, it will go a long way for Baltimore’s defensive prowess this season and in the future.