Without a typical offseason and training camp, rookies around the NFL have been thrown into the fire like never before. While preseason might seem meaningless to some, it’s a great ramp up period for rookies. Without even seeing an opponent prior to Week 1, the Baltimore Ravens threw Patrick Queen and J.K. Dobbins into action and asked them to learn on the fly. Baltimore’s top two picks responded with fervor almost instantly.
In the Ravens season opener against their divisional rival, the Cleveland Browns, Queen and Dobbins made an impact. As the starting inside linebacker, Queen registered a tackle for loss, a QB hit and a forced fumble. Dobbins, who split time with Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram, found the end zone twice in his first game as a Raven. Both appeared to be home runs in Eric DeCosta’s second draft as the Ravens General Manager.
The Ravens next pick in the draft, Justin Madubuike, was injured in camp and unable to play until Week 5. Already behind the eight ball, he only recorded two pressures and four run stops over his first six games.
Fast forward to mid-December. There’s an old saying, “once you hit December, you’re not a rookie anymore.”
Dobbins has racked up nearly 700 yards and six touchdowns despite only receiving 10 or more touches in a game six times. Patrick Queen has racked up nearly 100 tackles, with eight tackles for loss, eight QB hits, three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered for a touchdown. Madubuike was named to PFF’s team of the week in Week 14, and has recorded six pressures over the past two games. Over the last month in particular, the Ravens top three picks have stepped up to the plate big time. Battle tested, they’re no longer rookies. They’ve experienced ups and downs, and as John Harbaugh often says, “you either win or you learn.” They’ve done both.
Let’s take a look at the impact that each of the Ravens first three draft picks have made in their 2020 rookie campaigns so far.
Starting with Queen — he had an extremely rough stretch in the middle of the season, which was capped off against the New England Patriots in a torrential downpour.
Queen immediately went with his responsibility, which is encouraging.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 17, 2020
Then, Queen hesitated as Burkhead rounded upfield, trying to vision back to the play. Allowed Burkhead to gain.
An elite LB is going to make a play on the ball given that much time.
Tear drop throw man... pic.twitter.com/9TjkDe8P24
Queen was timid. struggling to identify the Patriots varying run concepts and fill the gap, which left wide open rushing lanes. The Patriots game was a four quarter magnifying glass aimed at Queen. After the game Wink Martindale discussed Queen’s struggles.
Ravens DC Wink Martindale said he told Patrick Queen that "you either win or your learn in this league." Martindale said, "Obviously, he did a lot of learning Sunday."— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) November 19, 2020
Queen followed that up with another rough performance when the Titans came to Baltimore. He struggled to consistently fill the frontside C-gap, his biggest issue this season, while missing nearly as many tackles (4) as he made (6).
4Q— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 25, 2020
Queen gets too tight, blocks himself. Has to get to the C gap and FILL!!!
Harrison has back side, just make sure this isn’t getting outside of you? No. pic.twitter.com/Vn7FiDGv8W
Since then, Queen has become much more confident and consistent. Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick broke down Queen’s play as of late, with a lofty comparison mentioned.
Sunday’s Week 15 win against the Jaguars was one of Queen’s best performances. Queen’s violent athleticism, ability to mirror backs and blitzing prowess have made his presence felt as he continues to grow. Among all inside linebackers, Queen currently has some impressive tallies:
- t-6th in pressures (17).
- t-8th in sacks (3).
- t-2nd in FF (3).
However, he also has the most missed tackles in the NFL according to both Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions. Most of his misses occur in the backfield, as he comes downhill too hot and backs are able to sidestep him.
Queen’s struggles occur when he’s indecisive. Most of his poor reps occur when he fails to read his keys, such as pulling guards or zone flow. This often results with blockers getting into his face before he has any momentum, leading to difficulty getting off of blocks. When he pushes the issue, plays fast and trusts his eyes, he makes impact plays. He needs to rely more on his explosive athleticism and simply blow something up, as opposed to sitting back and letting blockers get into his pads.
Queen’s coverage ability has improved throughout the year, but he hasn’t had many promising reps in man coverage, which is disappointing considering it was a strength at LSU. He still seems to be indecisive in man coverage, another area where he’s failed to use his top-tier athleticism. He runs a 4.5 and has great quickness, but seems hesitant to use it. In zone, he’s improved by leaps and bounds. He’s started to understand when to carry tight ends or slot receivers vertical to prevent them from finding a soft spot, and has nearly jumped three interceptions, including one that he dropped against the Eagles, which looked to be a 90-yard pick-six.
Undoubtedly, the Louisiana native is young. Joe Hortiz mentioned in a post-draft presser that the Ravens loved the idea of taking Queen because of his youth. He mentioned that if Queen returned to school for another year he would be a surefire top-10 pick in 2021. Whenever Queen struggles, critics remind you that he only started one year at LSU. However, the Ravens drafted Queen and put him in a starting role. He has 14 games under his belt.
Will he probably improve with an offseason? Yes. However, the Ravens are in a Super Bowl window and can’t afford to waste it. If they do end up making the postseason, Queen needs to activate his violent athleticism with confidence. Blowing something up is better than watching the play unfold and getting blocked out of it. With that being said, Queen has made tons of impact plays this year. He’s had two games with three tackles for loss. His statistics, aside from missed tackles, are impressive, particularly considering his youth. The future certainly looks bright, but the Ravens need Queen to make an impact presently.
Moving onto the Ravens second-round pick, Dobbins has now scored a touchdown in four straight games, adding a pair of two-point conversions as well. Although, Dobbins has quietly fumbled in back-to-back games, which is uncharacteristic of the back, who fumbled only three times in 809 touches at Ohio State.
Dobbins is a true homerun threat. He’s had seven carries go for more than 15 yards on only 110 carries, while forcing 25 missed tackles on 118 total touches. He’s done damage on outside run concepts consistently, which has inspired Greg Roman to start using him on bash options as well as putting him in jet motion from the slot in heavy doses.
GRo dialed up Gus + Dobbins 21 personnel. 4 or 4 so far— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) December 22, 2020
Dobbins is being used as a spread H back with tons of jet motion. I LOVE it. Dobbins is great on the perimeter.
Edwards runs the RB seam. Notice Andrews vacate. Edwards stays with it and Lamar throws him away from danger. pic.twitter.com/6LazWtukZf
new wrinkle— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) December 21, 2020
Ravens often go into empty then bring a RB back in, which they do to ID man or zone (if someone follows back, it’s man)
Watch how Dobbins motions causally, before accelerating into the snap/handoff.
Giving Dobbins a running start to get a 1 on 1 >>> pic.twitter.com/aR3JyulX6e
20 personnel 2x2 gun right slot jet motion is fun!— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 23, 2020
Get Dobbins on the perimeter and things happen.
Second jet sweep of the 1Q. Duvernay had one on 2-8 for a cool 5 yards. pic.twitter.com/OfZkyLAyOJ
Putting Dobbins in motion like this creates a “pick your poison” scenario for defenses. They can choose between giving Dobbins a running start, then getting him one on one with a DB or linebacker in space, or the alternative, which is to shade to Dobbins and give Lamar Jackson room to operate. Both are nightmare scenarios, and the Ravens have relied heavily on these concepts down the stretch. The former Buckeye has also been able to work in between the tackles, generating some awesome runs on power concepts.
At this point, Dobbins has effectively replaced Mark Ingram, while Gus Edwards’ role has expanded as well. The Ravens three headed monster has taken full effect as Greg Roman has dialed up more counter, misdirection and option run variations over the past few games. During their current three game win streak, the Ravens are averaging 226 yards rushing per contest, which has propelled their offense to average over 40 points per game during that time, tops in the NFL. Dobbins has the most rushes in that time, with 38 carries for 188 yards and three scores.
Dobbins has finally been given the opportunity to show why the Ravens deemed him worthy of a second-round pick, despite already rostering Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. The one area that has yet to fully click is in the passing game, where Dobbins has produced only 0.63 yards per route run, the sixth lowest figure of all running backs with at least 19 targets. This appears to be more of a fluke than related to Dobbins in any way, as he was a dynamic pass catcher during his time at Ohio State, piling up 71 receptions for 645 yards and five touchdowns throughout 42 games.
Dobbins looks and feels like a surefire RB1 at this point. He is versatile, explosive, tough between the tackles, able to make defenders miss or run through contact. He has a nose for the end zone, with all six of his touchdowns coming inside the five-yard line, while also generating big plays. He meshes well with the Ravens option attack, and provides more explosiveness in terms of speed to the edge than Gus Edwards, who is certainly no slouch.
One of the most fun aspects of Dobbins’ game is his ability to change pace, or play at full speed. He’s shown some instances of rocket-fuel in his acceleration from patient positions, able to hit the corner at full speed on outside run concepts, or wait for a play to develop before turning on the burners. He hasn’t quite been able to hit a homerun with a long touchdown, but anyone who has watched the Ravens this year knows they’re on the way. Dobbins was certainly the most “pro-ready” player in the Ravens rookie class, and he’s shown that from early on.
Looking at some of the other rookie backs that have played well as of late, there’s a common denominator. Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift and Dobbins all had a ramp up period. While Swift suffered a concussion, he’s rebounded well. Taylor and Akers have come on as of late, with Dobbins slowly but steadily being incorporated more and more. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and James Robinson were the cream of the crop early on, but both have hit the “rookie wall” and are nursing injuries. It seems that saving the rookie backs has boded well, particularly for the Ravens, Colts and Rams, who are all players in the playoff picture. Fresh legs are a welcome sight nearly four months into the season.
While the top two picks have rounded into form and been key components in the Ravens’ playoff push, third-round pick Justin Madubuike has quietly started to wreak havoc in the trenches. Madubuike has recorded six pressures over the past two games, while being a force against the run. His explosive get off, brute strength and speed as an interior player have started to shine over the past two weeks. Madubuike has been brilliant in the absence of Calais Campbell (calf), and has garnered two straight games with strong grades from Pro Football Focus (90.4, 81.5). Madubuike is currently the third highest graded Ravens defender, with an overall 73.4.
Besides obviously the win, the biggest positive for the Ravens last night was how good rookie DT Justin Madubuike looked. 4 pressures, all against the best guard tandem in the NFL— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 15, 2020
Justin Madubuike has been a FORCE in the trenches the past two weeks. 6 pressures, a few run stops.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) December 24, 2020
His unique build (6-foot-3 with 33.5 inch arms) combines with explosive get off, speed and brute strength.
His trench karate (hand placement) seems to be sharpening by the game! pic.twitter.com/9c3jBYfLqP
Madubuike was an intriguing prospect coming out of Texas A&M. He’s a bit undersized in terms of the average NFL iDL, but had great speed scores. He also possesses outstanding length, with 33.5 inch arms and an 80.5 inch wingspan. At 6-foot-3, he isn’t the tallest defensive linemen, but he always played with good pad level. This gives him a strong center of gravity to generate leverage, with an explosive get off and brute strength (31 reps at the combine). In other words, he has a somewhat unique build.
His ability to challenge interior linemen with his explosive get off, win initial hand fighting, and rush with closing speed has been frankly exciting to watch. The Ravens haven’t drafted an interior linemen who has been relatively successful as a pass-rusher in quite some time, and Madubuike is flashing the potential to be the best since. . . well. . . Haloti Ngata. Watching “Mad Dog” quickly put linemen into survival mode has been a joy to watch.
He’s no slouch against the run, either. One of his biggest knocks in college was the inability to stand up to double teams, which he appears to have improved on significantly, showcased in the video above. He’s a menace as a weakside 3-technique against outside zone concepts, where his closing speed and length have proven supremely effective.
While it’s only two games, his performances against Jacksonville and Cleveland are wildly encouraging. He shows the requisite explosiveness and hand placement to be a successful interior linemen, which has been desperately needed. While he hasn’t registered a sack yet, they’re coming. Wink Martindale has publicly praised Madubuike a few times.
Wink Martindale on Justin Madubuike: "He really jumped off the tape [against Indy]. ... He's just getting better every time he puts on his helmet." #Ravens— Luke Jones (@BaltimoreLuke) November 12, 2020
Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said he thought rookie DT Justin Madubuike played his best game of the season Monday night against the Cleveland Browns.— Daniel Oyefusi (@DanielOyefusi) December 17, 2020
It’s rare for rookie defensive linemen, particularly ones drafted outside of the first round, to make an immediate impact. Madubuike has traits that are undeniable, while his growth has been evident throughout the season. “Mad Dog” is a disruptor, plain and simple. I had a second round grade on him in April, which made me rather excited when he slipped into the third round. I’m truly excited to see what his future holds.
Overall, the top three picks have become impact players at the right time. While the Ravens are getting hot down the stretch, Queen, Dobbins and Madubuike have made major impacts in the last three Ravens wins. With Baltimore on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, they will need these three, as well as their rookie returners Devin Duvernay and James Proche, to step up big time. There is no time for excuses, including my least favorite, “they just need more time.” The time in now.
The Ravens, although it sounded silly a few weeks ago, must finish 11-5. There’s no time for growing pains, speed bumps, hiccups, or excuses. It’s December. They aren’t rookies anymore.