The Baltimore Ravens’ outside linebacker depth chart will inevitably look drastically different by the time the 2021 season opener rolls around. Of the six edge defenders that they utilized and rotated through in 2020, only Jaylon Ferguson is currently under contract. The new league year begins on March 17th.
“We were fortunate; we were six-deep this year,” Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said. “We had a stable of guys, and we could roll different guys out based on the teams that we were playing. We love that versatility. We love the fact that we had 12 legitimate pieces in the front seven this year that we could roll out on game day, in terms of defensive line and outside linebackers.”
The other five are slated to become unrestricted free agents. While Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward could be brought back on inexpensive one-year or short-term contracts, their top three players at the position could very well be suiting up elsewhere next season.
“We may have some turnover on the roster; we understand that,” DeCosta said. “Again, the salary cap sometimes dictates the players that you can have on the team, but we do see some opportunities to bring some guys back.”
Pass rushing specialist Yannick Ngakoue, two-time Pro Bowler Matt Judon, and fourth-year pro Tyus Bowser are the other three. Some pundits believe that the Ravens will only be able to afford one or none of them while I have recently suggested that with some creative contract structures, they could possibly be a scenario where they could find a way to re-sign at least two of the three.
Ngakoue might be the priority of the bunch since he is the only one that has shown an ability to eclipse and nearly average double-digit sacks every year he’s been in the league.
If DeCosta and Co. are only able to hold on to one of the top three and if that one winds up being Ngakoue, it would leave a gaping hole at SAM linebacker on the defensive depth chart.
Judon and Bowser are two of the most versatile players not just on the Ravens’ roster but in the entire league with the way they can be utilized off the edge as well as in space. Judon is the arguably the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL with the ability to generate pressure, set the edge against the run and drop in coverage. Bowser was the Ravens’ best coverage linebacker among both the inside and outside corps.
With no players currently on the active roster or signed to a future/reserves contract that possesses anywhere close to the same dynamic versatility, there is a prospect in this incoming draft class that could come in, fill the role and possibly even hit the ground running given his identical skill set and awe-inspiring athletic ability.
That player is University of Tulsa linebacker, Zaven Collins who won both the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy which are given to College Football’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The 21-year old was referred to as a defensive swiss army knife during his time as a three-year starter for the Golden Hurricanes before declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft following a breakout redshirt junior campaign.
He has been mocked to the Ravens at 27th overall in some simulations by draft analysts and pundits and is projected to come off the board anywhere between the mid-to-late first round.
The latter would greatly benefit the Ravens who covet players and especially high level defenders that can affect the game in a multitude of ways.
Collins played off the ball in college and didn’t play with his hand in the dirt or primarily lineup on either edge. But at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he possesses the ideal size hold up on the edge with a unique blend of speed, power, flexibility, and quickness to bend around the corner and dip under the blocks of offensive tackles.
His instincts as a blitzer are off the charts with the way he is able to perfectly time up his blitzes whether it is on a delay, after reading run on play-action, or a broken play.
He exhibits great patience on runs to the outside, routinely blows up plays in the backfield, and sniffs out screens with a veteran-like savvy. He also has the wherewithal to know when to bail on a rush and get his hands up to tip and bat down balls.
Collins uses his incredible closing speed and relentless motor to drag down quarterbacks and ball carriers alike for huge losses or minimal to no gain, both are traits that would serve him well as a pass rusher in the pros.
He’ll need to add some more pass-rushing moves and counters to his repertoire at the next level but that shouldn’t be too difficult of a task given his already advanced quick-twitch muscle fibers and the fact that he’ll be under the seasoned tutelage of both Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale and newly hired linebackers coach Rob Ryan who is a renown defensive assistant.
His ability in coverage is arguably the most impressive and vital trait he has to offer the Ravens if they were to lose Judon but especially Bowser.
Collins plays very similar to Bowser in space and already has the natural feel for the passing game that the former second-round pick out of Houston put on full display in 2020 with a career-high three interceptions.
They both can be used to disguise coverage and simulate pressure before falling back into a passing lane to either take away one of the quarterback’s reads or corral the intended pass for a turnover.
During his final collegiate season, Collins recorded a career-high four interceptions in just eight games, two of which he returned for touchdowns including a 96-yard return to seal a double-overtime win over Tulane.
He has a good grasp of what is going on behind him, reads the eyes of opposing quarterbacks well, and can make them pay for staring down targets in his zone.
Collins is always around the ball, has good ball skills, and plays with a lot of hustle. In addition to his four picked off passes in 2020, he recorded 54 total tackles including 7.5 for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a pair of pass deflections.
After taking standout rookie Patrick Queen with the 28th overall pick in 2020, many fans might be against the idea of the team drafting another uber-athletic linebacker in the first round for the second straight year with so many pressing perceived needs on the offensive side of the ball.
However, who’s to say they won’t have already aggressively addressed one or more of those deficiencies in free agency or via trade and by the time the draft arrives, finding a plug and play starter who can be a day one difference maker opposite of Ngakoue at one of the most important positions on the defense might be the top priority.
There probably isn’t a player better suited in this entire draft class to fill the role that would be vacated with Bowser and Judon’s departure than Collins. The fact that he’d be under contract through 2025 if they decide to exercise his fifth option means that they could get elite-level production for far less than what market value would dictate for half of a decade.
Martindale would have a blast finding different ways to utilize such a gifted and versatile defensive chess piece who can line up wreak havoc from anywhere on the front seven in both the running and passing game. He’d have two of the most athletic young linebackers in the league at his disposal in Queen and Collins and—God willing—a whole offseason program and preseason to cultivate and refine their talents.
Checkout Collins’ 2020 highlights below: