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Help wanted: interior pass rush

It tops their offseason priority list

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

The Baltimore Ravens defense underwent a massive overhaul throughout the 2019 offseason and into the regular season. After allowing over 1,000 yards and 73 points in consecutive losses, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta made a slew of acquisitions that transformed the defense into one of the best units in the NFL.

The acquisitions of Marcus Peters, Josh Bynes, Domata Peko, Justin Ellis, L.J. Fort, along with the return of Jimmy Smith from injury, were paramount in creating a defense formidable enough to slow down opponents.

That group played spectacularly, especially considering the limited time that they had to get up to speed.

Undoubtedly, the Ravens defense still lacked penetration between the C-gaps. Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Chris Wormley took the lions share of snaps across the defensive interior, generated 16, 16 and 15 pressures respectively between sacks, QB hits and hurries. They combined to rush the passer on 893 snaps, netting 47 combined pressures.

For perspective, SS Chuck Clark generated 12 pressures on only 114 pass rushes. While much of that has to do with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s simulated pressure blitz scheme, few would argue that Pierce, Williams and Wormely lack the ability to penetrate the pocket with any sort of consistency.

Across defensive fronts in 2019, 13 individual players generated 46 or more pressures from interior front positions. None of them rushed the passer more than 576 times.

While much thought and consideration has already generated towards Matthew Judon’s pending free agency, more should be paid to the interior pass rushing situation.When looking at successful edge rushers around the league, more often than not, they were accompanied by a dynamic interior pass rush that could penetrate the pocket.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were accompanied by Cameron Heyward (59 pressures), Javon Hargrave (49 pressures), Stephon Tuitt (18 pressures) and Tyson Alualu (15 pressures). Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews had the presence of Aaron Donald (80 pressures) and Michael Brockers (36 pressures).

Za’Darius and Preston Smith saw Kenny Clark (62 pressures) and Dean Lowry (20 pressures) penetrate upfield. Shaquil Barrett had Vita Vea (56 pressures) beating interior offensive lineman.

In other words, an effective pass rush is dependent upon interior and exterior forces working in unison. The loss of Pernell McPhee, who the Ravens planned to kick inside on passing downs, certainly hurt. McPhee figured to be more of fool’s gold as opposed to a long-term solution, though.

Moving forward, the Ravens have two options to look for interior pass rush; free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

NFL Draft

Drafting an interior defensive lineman and expecting them to immediately generate pressure is impractical, but not impossible.

In 2019, the following defensive interior players generated substantial pressure:

  • Ed Oliver— 29 pressures on 357 pass rushes.
  • Christian Wilkins— 30 pressures on 353 pass rushes.
  • Dexter Lawrence— 30 pressures on 412 pass rushes.
  • Charles Omenihu— 27 pressures on 326 pass rushes.

Omenihu was the only player selected after the 28th pick, which the Ravens possess in 2020.

In 2018:

  • Daron Payne— 27 pressures on 473 pass rushes.
  • B.J. Hill— 27 pressures on 356 pass rushes.
  • Vitea Vea— 26 pressures on 255 pass rushes.
  • Da’Shawn Hand— 25 pressures on 263 pass rushes.

B.J. Hill and Da’Shawn Hand were both selected after the 28th pick.

In 2017 only Adam Butler, who recorded 27 pressures on 343 pass rushes generated substantial pass rush as a rookie. In fact, dating back to 2010, only 16 defensive interior players have generated 30 or more pressures in their rookie season.

Chris Jones, Mario Edwards Jr., Kawann Short, Kendall Reyes, Pernell McPhee and Geno Atkins are the only such players who have been selected after the 28th pick to generate 30 or more pressures in their rookie season since 2010.

If the Ravens want to find interior pass rush through the draft, it probably won’t pay off immediately unless they trade up. There are three prospects who I believe could realistically make an immediate impact as a pass rusher from the interior in 2020.

  • Derrick Brown, Auburn:

Brown is one of the best interior defensive players to enter the draft in recent history. He can one-gap or two-gap, move all the way out to rush from the outside on passing downs if needed, and is as pro-ready as they come. I would be surprised to see Brown slide out of the top 10.

  • A.J. Epenesa, Iowa:

Epenesa played predominantly as a right defensive end for the Hawkeyes, but he could certainly play the 5-technique in the Ravens front and kick inside on passing downs. Epenesa strongly reminds me of J.J. Watt at Wisconsin, although not quite as explosive off the snap. Quite literally a man-child from a young age, allegedly measuring in at a hulking 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds as a high school freshman. His incredible hand strength and drive indicates that he’s been comfortable with his massive frame for quite some time. As a player with enough size and athleticism, he could move all across the Ravens front in passing situations. Opinions on Epenesa range, as various outlets have him being a top 10 pick, with other slating the behemoth to slide towards the end of the first round.

  • Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina:

Kinlaw possesses excellent length, snap anticipation and explosiveness. He is similar to Chris Jones, who dominated in the Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs. Kinlaw had an excellent Senior Bowl showing, and shouldn’t make it out of the top 20.

  • Neville Gallimore, Oklahoma:

Gallimore is a violent thrasher with a rocked up physique for a player who spent most of his time shaded over the center. He has a deadly swim and an alligator death roll spin move that couples with great footwork and excellent pop in his initial punch. He greatly improved from 2018 to 2019, shedding bad weight and becoming truly explosive. Gallimore could realistically be in play at 28.

  • Ross Blacklock, TCU:

Blacklock isn’t quite as polished as Brown or Kinlaw, but has shown explosive penetrating abilities. He will need some work on run concept recognition, but his pass rushing ability is excellent and he could potentially be a key figure in a dynamic front seven early on. Blacklock will be available at 28, potentially even late into the second round.

  • James Lynch, Baylor:

Lynch is more of a “sleeper”, who has generated very little buzz in the media so far. Lynch is a bit unique, as Baylor played a 3-3-5 with only three down lineman the majority of snaps. Lynch was uber productive regardless, with a ton of experience taking on double teams as a result of the system he played in. His size makes him a tweener, without enough athleticism to play on the edge, but this could allow him to be moved around across the front depending on the down and distance. Lynch’s tape is quite fun to watch. In the Big 12 championship game, he recorded a few sacks and a slew of pressures. Lynch isn’t a dynamic athlete, but his hand usage, motor and knack for QB movement put him on my sleeper board.

The Ravens would most likely need to trade up to acquire Brown or Kinlaw, while Gallimore, Epenesa and Blacklock figure to be selected somewhere in the first 50 picks.

The draft doesn’t figure to provide the Ravens with a true impact defensive lineman in 2020, although investing capital in a future asset would be wise.

Free Agency

While it’s a bit too early to call, quite a few disruptive interior defensive lineman could hit the market. Some will be resigned or potentially franchise tagged, but a few will certainly hit the market.

Bringing in a veteran will most certainly have a more immediate impact, although pairing a rookie with a veteran could ensure that the Ravens don’t have a need at the position for some time.

Current players who are without a contract that fit the bill include:

  • Michael Brockers:

Brockers has had the benefit of playing alongside Aaron Donald the past few years, but has been a consistently strong against the run and pass. Brockers has generated 91 pressures including 11 sacks over the past three years. The former first round pick has length and could play the 5-tech well for the Ravens. He wouldn’t break the bank as a 30 year old player, and would leave the Ravens with room to operate.

  • Mike Daniels:

Daniels is another veteran who is approaching 31 years old. He totaled only 200 total snaps across an injury plagued season in Detroit, but is one year removed from a four year stretch where PFF graded Daniels as one of the better interior pass rushers in the NFL. Similar to Brockers, Daniels wouldn’t break the bank. There is a bit of risk involved following a poor campaign, but that’s the kind of free agent acquisition the Ravens have traditionally loved to bring in.

  • Jordan Phillips:

The former Bill could very easily wind up staying in Buffalo, as the Bills are sitting on a mountain of cap space. If he hits the market, he is quite intriguing. Phillips broke out in a contract year, which the Ravens typically avoid. The former Dolphin totaled 10 sacks on 28 pressures, which indicates fool’s gold to an extent, but he was quite a disruptive force in Buffalo. At 27 years old, he figures to get one of the higher deals among interior defensive lineman this offseason.

  • D.J. Reader:

Reader should garner the most attention of any free-agent interior defensive lineman this offseason. He has steadily improved throughout his rookie contract with the Houston Texans. This past season, Reader recorded seven games with at least three or more pressures. Reader feels like the player that Michael Pierce was en route to becoming before a disappointing offseason. At 26 years old and steadily improving, Reader would be a welcome investment from easily half of the teams in the league.

  • Jarran Reed:

Reed had a six game suspension to start 2019, and finished the year with 26 total pressures including four sacks. Reed was a breakout star in 2018, where he recorded 55 pressures including 11 sacks. A candidate for a large one year prove-it type deal. The Ravens could lure Reed in with a sizable one year deal and the chance to win a ring on his way to a larger payday.

  • Javon Hargrave:

Another player who exploded in a contract year, but similarly to Reader has steadily improved year over year. Hargrave is an explosive penetrator, who recorded 49 pressures in only 373 pass rushing snaps. Hargrave is also sturdy against the run, recording a 77.2 and 79.5 against the run over the past two seasons according to PFF. Hargrave is almost a lock to hit the open market, as the Steelers barely have enough cap space to sign their incoming rookie class.

  • Leonard Williams:

Williams has been the model of consistent pressure as a 3-4 defensive end for the majority of his career. Williams produced an astounding 52 pressures as a rookie, and hasn’t looked back. He’s recorded at least 46 pressures in each of his five NFL seasons. While his pressures haven’t resulted in sacks the way he would’ve liked, he’s been stout against the run. Williams also had virtually no edge rushing presence during his four seasons with the Jets. Pairing Williams with an explosive edge rush could cause his numbers to sky rocket, if QB’s are forced to step into Williams from outside pressure. The 25 year old was the sixth overall pick in 2015, and the Giants ponied up too much draft capital for Williams to be a rental. A franchise tag or long term deal for Williams feels likely, but he will command a hefty contract if he’s able to hit the open market.

  • Chris Jones

Possibly the premier player to hit the open market aside from the quarterback position, Jones has been one of the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in football over the past few seasons. Jones dominated the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, clogging passing lanes with his massive frame and generating quick pressure in the pocket. Jones has produced 224 career pressures, with 143 coming in the past two seasons.

He would be the ideal defender for the Ravens, but would limit what they could do otherwise in free agency. Jones stated that the Chiefs were “starting a dynasty” following the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are tight against the cap, but moving on from Sammy Watkins and a few others would allow Kansas City enough cap space to retain Jones, although Patrick Mahomes inevitable extension could burst that bubble.

With several options likely to hit the market, the Ravens should be able to bring in a disruptive interior lineman in free agency. Javon Hargrave could make the most sense, as he is stout against the run and the pass, and has been working in the Steelers two gap, blitz friendly system for a few years. Steelers/Ravens crossovers don’t happen often, but when they do it adds a little extra spice to the rivalry.

If the Ravens wanted to use their first round selection on a player like Neville Gallimore, who could realistically be available, it would make sense to double dip. With Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Tavon Young set to return in 2020, pairing that group with a more formidable pass rush seems to be the best way to improve their roster moving forward. While there will be navigation required with Matthwe Judon, there are a few edge options available in both free agency and the NFL draft that could make sense if the Ravens decide Judon’s contract is too rich. Whoever lines up at edge in 2020 would greatly benefit from more penetrating style interior pass rushers, something that the Ravens have lacked for the better part of a decade.

While “Wink” Martindale loves to blitz, I’m sure he would enjoy some more disruptive interior pass rushers. The Ravens drafted Daylon mack in 2019, who showed promise as an interior penetrator during his time at Texas A&M. If Mack is able to take a leap, that would be a welcome sight, but doubling down at the position is an absolute must if the Ravens want to take their defense to the next level.

The Ravens haven’t had an interior defensive lineman record over 30 pressures since 2012. That year, both Haloti Ngata (38 pressures) was a force inside. The Ravens ended up winning the Super Bowl with Ngata, Arthur Jones, Paul Kruger, Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw all making contributions.

If the Ravens want history to repeat itself, Eric DeCosta has some work to do.