The average age of the Baltimore Ravens’ starting defensive linemen at the start of the 2020 season was just over 31 years old. Assuming that impending free agent Derek Wolfe is re-signed and his fellow veterans Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams are also retained, that stat will likely remain on the wrong side of 30 next season.
When healthy, they are a formidable unit but last season proved that the team can’t bank on that for the entire season. None of the three starters played in all 16 regular-season games and the lack of quality depth behind them was apparent when they were out of the lineup.
During a rough patch in November, when Williams and Campbell missed several games due to a combination of injuries and being placed on the COVID Reserve List, the run defense gave up 173 twice in consecutive weeks to the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots.
Neither player is signed through 2021 and even if they manage to stay on the field for the vast majority of the next season, relying on aging veterans that carry hefty salaries isn’t smart business.
The Ravens have several young playmakers on the offensive side of the ball that will need their contracts addressed in the near future including quarterback Lamar Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews.
That means replenishing their depth in defensive trenches needs to come by building through the draft and bringing in relatively young mid-tier free agents at bargain prices. This unique offseason will provide them with a prime opportunity to do both.
The unrestricted free agent market is going to have several affordable options. More will come in the coming weeks as cap casualties are released ahead of the start new league year on March 17.
Some names to monitor include Johnathan Hankins (28-years-old), Roy Robertson-Harris (27-years-old), and Larry Ogunjobi (26-years-old). Hankins is an eight-year veteran who can play both nose tackle and three-technique and is a good run defender with some upside as a pass rusher.
Robertson-Harris would provide great depth at five-technique/defensive end. The former undrafted free agent worked his way up the Chicago Bears’ depth chart from a rotational player to a solid full-time starter in 2020 before landing in injured reserve in early November.
Ogunjobi is a penetrating interior presence who is just as disruptive against the run as he is rushing the passer. In a normal offseason, he’d likely be a highly sought-after commodity on the open market but the vast majority of teams won’t be able to open their checkbooks as wide for ascending talents as they have in years past. The Ravens might be able to afford him if they decide not to bring Wolfe back in favor of a younger option that plays the same position.
The Ravens selected two players at both inside linebacker and defensive tackle in last year’s draft during the remodel of their front seven. While the middle of the defense appears set for the foreseeable future, the team could apply the same double down approach in consecutive years on their defensive line come April.
Of the two rookies that they drafted in 2020, third-rounder Justin Madubuike showed the most promise once he recovered from a training camp injury and came on very strong late in the season.
Fifth-rounder Broderick Washington didn’t really impress with his play on the field when he was given extensive opportunities during Williams’ and Campbell’s absences.
This year’s interior defensive line class isn’t considered to be very deep but there are some intriguing options near the top of the draft that the Ravens could consider. Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike are the only two projected to come off the board in the first round and most mocks have them going in the at or near the bottom.
Barmore is nowhere near the run defender as Williams but possesses far more talent as an interior pass rusher, which in today’s NFL is almost as valuable as a top-flight edge defender. Onwuzurike is an all-around stud with violent and active hands who stood out during the week of practice at the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
Some developmental interior players that could be had in the mid to later rounds and groomed into quality depth players with coaching and refined technique are USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu and Florida State’s Marvin Wilson. Both players are viewed as better fits for 4-3 schemes at the next level but could excel in Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s hybrid 3-4.
The Ravens’ need to get younger on the defensive line is not as pressing as the need for a natural center, an upgrade at ‘X’ receiver, another pass-catching tight end or a third safety but it is still a need none the less.
To avoid being left shorthanded and undermanned again on the defensive line, General Manager Eric DeCosta will need to do more than re-sign Justin Ellis or hope to find the next Michael Pierce as an undrafted free agent following the conclusion of the draft.