As it currently stands, the Baltimore Ravens’ pass rush is a growing concern heading into the 2021 season. While General Manager Eric DeCosta and the front office were able to bring back outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee, the two combined for just six sacks last season including the playoffs.
The loss of Pro Bowl edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon, as well as defensive end Jihad Ward left a large chunk of snaps and production to make up for. While the Ravens did pick up a pair of edge defenders in the 2021 NFL Draft with the selection of Odafe Oweh in the first round and Daelin Hayes in the fifth, neither are proven commodities and have yet to take a snap in the NFL.
Barring the signing of a veteran pass rusher still sitting on the free agent market, the team appears content on taking the pass rush by committee approach in 2021.
However, that doesn’t mean that one of the players already on the roster couldn’t step their game up in a big way this year and reach a milestone that no Ravens’ edge or interior rusher has made it to in three seasons. That is reach or eclipse the double-digit sack threshold.
The last Ravens’ defender to notch 10 or more sacks in a single season was future Hall of Fame outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded 11 sacks in 2017. The next closest totals were Judon with 9.5 in 2019 and linebacker Za’Darius Smith with 8.5 sacks in 2018.
Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale has gone on record calling sacks a “superficial” gauge of a pass rusher’s impact. He is right to a degree because there are much more ways to measure how much pressure or how disruptive a defender is behind the line of scrimmage, even if he doesn’t get home as often. There are such stats as quarterback hits, hurries, pressures, and pass rush win rate.
For the sake of content and optimism that a lead dog will emerge from the pack, here’s a case for some of the current Ravens that could make it to, or even surpass the 10-sack mark.
DE Calais Campbell
The 13-year veteran’s first season with the team didn’t go as smoothly as he or anyone hoped it would due to COVID and a calf strain injury. Nevertheless, Campbell registered four sacks in 14 games and was voted to his sixth career Pro Bowl.
Campbell is the only Raven on the current roster to have achieved 10 or more sacks in a single season, doing so twice in his career (2017: 14.5 sacks, 2018, 10.5 sacks). Both occurred during his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Campbell has had his best and most productive seasons in the twilight of his career as he continues to age with grace. He is an extremely disruptive presence up front that can generate both interior and edge pressure if asked to do so. For these reasons, he is one of the candidates most likely to reach 10 or more sacks.
OLB Tyus Bowser
After re-signing with the Ravens this offseason to the tune of a four-year contract with a maximum value of $27 million, the 2017 second-round pick is expected to assume a larger role on defense as the full-time starter at the SAM outside linebacker spot. Heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Bowser said one of his main goals was to join the double-digit sack club after logging a career-high five in 2019.
While he fell well short of goal in 2020, recording just two sacks in the regular season , he still made his presence felt. An area he was especially proficient in was in coverage, where he was among the best in the league and notched a career-high three interceptions.
Since he is so dangerous in space, Bowser will likely continue to spend more time dropping from the line of scrimmage than he charging toward the quarterback. However, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t produce a career season as a pass rusher and encroach a 10-sack year . He can get around offensive tackles with speed, quickness and great bend, but don’t sleep on the power of his bull rush. Bowser could also be used to generate pressure on disguised or delayed blitzes.
DT Justin Madubuike
There has been a considerable amount of hype emanating from Ravens coaches and players regarding the 2020 third-round pick heading into his second season. Expectations are high for Madubuike in 2021 after he finished his rookie season playing very well down the stretch. While a player going from recording just one sack in 12 games in year one to putting up double-digit figures in year two seems and sounds astronomical to some, it’s not incomprehensible and is completely within the realm of possibilities for this particular player.
Since the Ravens don’t possess a lot of depth on their defensive line behind their starting three in base formations, Madubuike will be heavily involved in the rotation and could even compete for a starting role.
He didn’t have the benefit of an actual offseason program heading into his rookie year and his debut was delayed due to a soft tissue injury he suffered in training camp. With a full offseason program and a year of experience under his belt, Madubuike could be primed to take the big leap that several of his veteran cohorts expect him to make this year.
OLB Odafe Oweh
The last time the Ravens used a first-round pick on an outside linebacker was on Suggs in 2003. He hit the ground running in year one with 12 sacks and won Defensive Rookie of the Year in the process. Expecting Oweh to have such a prolific inaugural season would be a tall task for any rookie but he doesn’t need to break the franchise rookie sack record to join the double-digit sack club.
Even though he recorded just seven sacks in his collegiate career, none of which came in 2020, he has the athleticism and versatility to be used in a plethora of ways. Martindale will come up with all types of ways to use Oweh’s unique blend of size, speed and length to create and exploit mismatches . This could result in several occasions where the rookie will have open and unevaded lanes to the quarterback on stunts, loops, twists and blitzes. He could also follow in Suggs’ footsteps and start out as a situational pass rusher who checks in on obvious passing downs.
Dark Horse Candidates
DT Derek Wolfe
In his first year with the Ravens, the nine-year veteran defensive tackle recorded two sacks in 16 games . However, he is only a year removed from a season where he was on a career-best pace. In his final year with the Denver Broncos, he recorded seven sacks in 12 games before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. In a non-COVID year where he hopefully won’t need to be the ironman upfront, Wolfe could have his best individual season to date.
OLB Jaylon Ferguson
Even though he is heading into his third season and not the final year of his rookie contract, the clock is ticking on the former third-round pick. The 2021 season may be a make-it-or-break-it year for him in Baltimore. While he has yet to live up to the ‘Sack Daddy’ nickname he earned in college, more opportunities and reps may help things “click” for Ferguson. He could carve out a nice niche for himself in the same rotational hybrid role that Ward played during his short stint with the Ravens.