The Ravens are returning a handful of starters on both sides of the ball this season. As such, there aren’t too many vacant starting spots up for grabs and we already have a decent idea of what the offensive and defensive lineups will look like ahead of training camp.
With that being said, there are some returning players who could be-line for bigger roles in 2021 than they held in 2020. Here are a few intriguing incumbents that deserve more snaps and playing time come September.
RB Justice Hill
Through two NFL seasons, 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill has shown flashes of upside in limited action. The former Oklahoma State product has been a valuable special teams contributor while playing sparingly on offense.
In 2018, Hill was the No. 3 running back on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards. Last year, he slotted No. 4 behind Ingram, Edwards and J.K. Dobbins. Ingram missed time with injury and eventually was phased out of the rotation, but it was Dobbins and Edwards — not Hill — who picked up the bulk of his snaps.
Entering the 2021 season, Hill is again buried behind behind two entrenched studs in Dobbins and Edwards. Assuming the Ravens don’t add another halfback into the mix (see Todd Gurley), Hill is in-line to serve as the No. 3 in the rotation and should see a heavy dose of special teams snaps once again.
Snaps are hard to come by as the third running back in the pecking order, especially when Lamar Jackson accounts for a high number of rushing attempts himself. Still, Hill deserves to be a bigger part of the offensive gameplan in 2021.
He’s demonstrated speed and elusiveness in the open field both as a runner and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Hill’s receiving chops alone warrant him seeing some action in third down situations, but he is also an underrated rusher between the tackles.
Hill’s playing time will never be significant so long as Dobbins and Edwards are healthy, but that shouldn’t prelude the Ravens from experimenting with him as an offensive weapon on Sundays.
LB Malik Harrison
While Patrick Queen garner most the headlines and attention, one can argue that the Ravens’ second linebacker draft pick in 2020 — Malik Harrison — was every bit as effective in their rookie season.
Harrison started six games last year and appeared in all 16. However, his playing time was sporadic, specifically over the second half of the season where his snap count decreased. In totality, he played 264 defensive snaps while handling 288 snaps on special teams.
Like Queen, Harrison experienced some rookie growing pains and was a bit out of sorts at times. However, there’s a lot to like about his game and upside heading into 2021. Harrison flashed quite a bit as a coverage linebacker and thumper in the run game.
His combination of size and physicality, matched with a high motor and good fluidity, makes him a candidate to line up in various positions on defense. Harrison showcased the ability to take on offensive lineman and shed blocks downhill in 2020, including against some of the best in the game like Quentin Nelson.
Harrison likely won’t step into a full-time starting role next season with L.J. Fort and Queen both still in the mix, along with Chris Board. However, the Ravens would be well-served to find ways to get Harrison on the field as much as possible in 2021.
DL Justin Madubuike
The Justin Madubuike hype train left the station weeks ago but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be featured on this list. Although only about halfway into the offseason, Madubuike’s stock is well on the rise.
Madubuike was limited to 10 appearances in 2020, three of which he started in, because of injuries in the first half of the season. While he didn’t stuff the stat sheet per say, he flashed quite a bit of upside as an interior presence against the run and as a pass-rusher.
Because the Ravens re-signed Derek Wolfe this offseason, Madubuike does not figure to occupy a starting role entering the 2021 season. However, he’s the clear top backup option in the defensive line rotation behind Wolfe, Calais Campbell, and Brandon Williams.
All signs point to Madubuike receiving significantly more snaps than the 260 he did last season. Given their age and injury history, it’s probably unlikely that Wolfe, Campbell and Williams each suit up for all 16 games. Even when active, their snaps will be managed delicately to an extent to preserve health for later in the year.
Madubuike is probably the most athletic defensive lineman on the roster and without a doubt has the most upside. Provided the opportunity, he should be a legitimate impact defender on the front-seven in 2021.