When he joined the Ravens in the middle of the 2019 season, linebacker L.J. Fort was an unexpected revelation. He helped stabilize a defense that was badly struggling at the time and became a valuable rotational player and special teams ace.
These qualities carried over into 2020, where Fort played 381 defensive snaps and 263 more on special teams. Despite appearing in only 14 games and starting eight, he finished fifth on the team in combined tackles with 53. After briefly releasing Fort last offseason, the Ravens quickly re-signed him to a one-year deal.
Unfortunately, Fort’s 2021 campaign ended before it even began after he suffered a torn ACL in the Ravens’ second preseason game. This was an unfortunate loss but also a fairly significant blow to Baltimore’s defense, which was evident very early on.
Without Fort, the Ravens were left with a young, inexperienced linebacker core of Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison and Chris Board. Hopes were high for the Queen-Harrison duo entering the season, but it became clear pretty quickly that the defense was badly missing a veteran presence in the middle of the field. Fort was this guy and without him, missed tackles, poor communication and subpar linebacker coverage were reoccurring issues.
In the middle of the season, the Ravens added a familiar face in Josh Bynes to the mix, who helped resolve or lessen many of these problems. Bynes filled the shoes of the veteran linebacker in the room left vacant following Fort’s injury.
It’s unclear what the team’s plan at the position is this offseason, but both Bynes and Fort are unrestricted free agents, along with Board. Board is a bit of a different case because he’s several years younger (26) than the aforementioned veterans. Fort just turned 32 in January and Bynes will be 33 by the start of the 2022 season.
There is a good case to be made to re-sign any one of these three players. They each bring different skill sets to the table. However, if it’s an either/or situation or the Ravens have to prioritize re-signing just one, Fort may be the most optimal choice.
Yes, Bynes showed he had plenty left in the tank in 2021. He racked up 76 tackles and two sacks and was vital in the Ravens’ defensive turnaround midseason. Board played the most defensive snaps of his career and finished with a career-high in tackles, while continuing to serve as a special teams anchor.
Fort, though, brings much of the same skillsets of both players to the table, just in one. This is, of course, assuming he makes a full recovery from his ACL injury and is 100% for next season.
Between 2019-2020, he demonstrated — like Bynes — high IQ and good intangibles on defense. He was regularly a “right place, right time” defender and probably the Ravens’ best coverage linebacker. Fort isn’t a turnover-forcing machine nor is he in his athletic prime anymore, but neither is Bynes and Fort has less tread on his tires.
He’s six years older than Board, putting him at an athletic disadvantage, but is a more steady defensive presence and a similarly effective special teams contributor. The biggest defensive appeal for Board is his coverage ability, but Fort has proven to be comparable in this department, if not superior or more consistent.
Again, a lot of this hinges of Fort’s recovery and his injury certainly complicates things. If was fully healthy this past season, maybe the Ravens never sign Bynes and this discussion is a much simpler one. Maybe there’s room for two of the three, Board included, to be re-signed in free agency, or maybe the Ravens plan on selecting a linebacker in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft.
The direction they go ultimately remains to be seen, but there’s a strong argument to be made that re-signing Fort is a low-risk, high-reward route.