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Grading each Ravens position group ahead of the 2020 season: Defense

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Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

I previously assigned grades to every position group on offense for the Baltimore Ravens ahead of the 2020 NFL season. While the offense remains largely intact from the 2019 season, the defense experienced much more turnover this offseason. Let’s take a look at each position group on the defensive side of the ball and see how they are shaping up.

Grading scale:

A = As good as a position can get. Great starters and depth.

B = Very good but held back by some question marks.

C = Questions and uncertainty cloud the position.


Defensive line

The defensive line of the Ravens was almost entirely overhauled following the end of the season. The formidable duo of Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce was broken when Pierce received his due payday from the Minnesota Vikings. Veteran Domata Peko Sr. was not re-signed as well. Peko joined the group during the season last year and became one of the unsung heroes of the major defensive turnaround. Defensive end Chris Wormley, who played 45.71% of snaps in 2019, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After parting ways with several key contributors, Baltimore wasted no time in not only replenishing the defensive line, but upgrading it.

The most notable acquisition came via trade when general manager Eric DeCosta exchanged a 5th-round pick for defensive end Calais Campbell. With 88 career sacks. five Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro and two second-team All-pro selections, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, Campbell’s resume speaks for itself. That’s just on the field, however. Off the field, Campbell is the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year. Campbell has the chance to be a real game-changer upfront for the Ravens.

Other newcomers include Derek Wolfe from the Denver Broncos as well as Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike and Texas Tech’s Broderick Washington through the draft. Jihad Ward, Daylon Mack, and Justin Ellis all return from last season, although both Mack and Ellis saw little playing time. Ward was a hidden gem last season after being signed off the streets in the midst of the season. With the versatility to play standing up on the edge or with his hand in the dirt on the line, Ward helped bring consistency to a then struggling front seven.

Grade = B


Outside linebacker

Possibly the weakest position on the defense, Baltimore’s group of edge defenders is headed by Pro-bowler Matthew Judon, who is currently set to play the 2020 season under the franchise tag. Judon had a career year in 2019, recording 9.5 sacks on his way to his first Pro Bowl. His ability to rush the passer, defend the run, and drop into coverage makes him an extremely valuable piece to the defense.

Opposite of Judon is veteran Pernell McPhee, who the Ravens re-signed to another one-year deal. McPhee was a starter last season before suffering a season-ending triceps injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7. McPhee’s snap count will likely have to be much lower this year in order for him to last the full season. Behind McPhee is fourth-year Tyus Bowser and second-year Jaylon Ferguson. A breakout season from either one of these two would give the defense a significant boost.

As it stands right now, Judon is the only truly reliable player at the position.

Grade = C


Inside linebacker

Another position that experienced major overhaul this offseason was inside linebacker. Baltimore chose not to re-sign either Josh Bynes or Patrick Onwuasor in free agency, two players who both played over 40% of defensive snaps in 2019. They did extend L.J. Fort, however, to a two-year extension. Fort is the oldest ILB on the roster currently at 30-years old, and although only playing 25% of the snaps last season, proved to a viable enough option at the position.

The Ravens completely rebuilt the position through the draft by drafting LSU’s Patrick Queen in the first round and Ohio State’s Malik Harrison in the third. Head coach John Harbaugh has already stated that he expects Queen to be a three-down player this year, which is quite a challenge for a rookie linebacker, especially one with only a year of starting experience under his belt in college. Harrison could carve a role for himself as a two-down run defender early on. Veteran Jake Ryan and third-year Chris Board will compete to fill out depth at the position and contribute to special teams.

While the potential of this group of is sky high, I can’t just predict that both rookies will step in and contribute heavily at a solid level right away. For that reason, I am knocking the grade down just a notch.

Grade = C


Cornerback

We now get to the strongest position on the entire roster. There are only two or three cornerback groups in the entire league that can even begin to compare to Baltimore’s. All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters head the group as one of the best cornerback duos in the league. Humphrey’s physical style pairs perfectly with the ball-hawking ability of Peters opposite of him. Humphrey also displayed the ability to move into the slot last season if need be.

Humphrey should not be needed in the slot this season though with the return of Tavon Young. Young missed all of last season with a neck injury and has dealt with injuries over the course of his career. When healthy, however, he is an extremely solid and scrappy slot corner. Veteran Jimmy Smith was re-signed this offseason to back up Humphrey and Peters and to possibly even take snaps at safety. Smith may not be the shutdown corner he was a few years ago, but he is still starter material on pretty much every other team. Third year Anthony Averett and second-year Iman Marshall will most likely close out the group.

Grade = A


Safety

Safety is another strength of the roster. Earl Thomas is entering his second season with the Ravens after returning from a broken leg to make the Pro Bowl last year. Though he didn’t have as many interceptions as usual (two), Thomas shut down his area of the field and forced quarterbacks to avoid his direction. Alongside Thomas is third-year Chuck Clark, who signed a three-year extension worth up to $16 million. Clark was a major key in Baltimore’s incredible defensive turnaround in 2019 after he replaced the injured Tony Jefferson at strong safety and assumed communication responsibilities with the green dot helmet. Clark led the team in tackles with 73 despite only starting in 12 games.

Behind the two starters are several intriguing players. First up is long-time special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. Levine’s role on defense was heavily reduced in 2019 compared to 2018, but that could change this year with the departure of veteran Brandon Carr, who transitioned from corner to mostly play safety in Dime packages last year. DeShon Elliot is perhaps the most intriguing, however. Every time Elliot has seen the field, he has flashed immense playmaking ability and ball-hawking prowess. The only problem is that he has very rarely seen the field in his first two seasons in the NFL, suffering season-ending injuries in consecutive years. If Elliot can stay healthy in 2020, he could assume deep safety duties alongside Thomas in dime and quarter packages. Rookie Geno Stone also joins the fray, but he will have to first make his mark on special teams to earn a spot on the roster as a seventh-round pick.

Grade = A