The Baltimore Ravens needed the strongest of finishes to make the postseason in 2020, running the table and winning their final five games to finish the year at 11-5. By the time the Ravens’ season had ended, the team had scored the first playoff win of Lamar Jackson’s young career, offering optimism that with that key hurdle behind him, Jackson and the Ravens can once again gear up and be ready to make a deep postseason push. But with Baltimore’s offense appearing ready to return to their 2019 form, with the team adding several key pieces this offseason, a new question has emerged that could potentially derail the bounceback:
Does this team have enough in the pass rush department?
Yes, Baltimore added key offensive weapons in WR Sammy Watkins, WR Rashod Bateman, and IOL Ben Cleveland. But the team bid farewell to two of their most prominent pass rushers in 2020: Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon. The duo provided an oddity for Baltimore this past season, as both were performing under the franchise tag. Given the restrictions regarding franchise tags and the limitations to one per team, it is quite rare to see two such players on the same roster—let alone at the same position. And it is even rarer to see two franchise tag recipients leave in the same offseason.
Yet, that is exactly where the Ravens stand with Judon headed north to play for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and Ngakoue headed west to play for Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders. The duo wasn’t necessarily the most productive in 2020, with Judon and Ngakoue combining for just nine total sacks combined in 23 cumulative games played. Ngakoue especially seemed to struggle to get his footing in a season in which he was technically under contract by three separate teams: Jacksonville, Minnesota, and eventually Baltimore. Ngakoue took on a diminished role for Baltimore, serving as a pass rush specialist who only once exceeded 50 snaps in a game with the Ravens after going over that mark for four of his six games early in the season with the Vikings. His 9.4% pressure rate was the worst of his career and the latest plot point in an alarming trend that has seen his per-rush pressure production tailspin going all the way back to his second year in the league.
2017: 15.0% pressure rate
2018: 12.9% pressure rate
2019: 10.5% pressure rate
2020: 9.4% pressure rate
Ngakoue’s loss is one to acknowledge for Baltimore, but his departure isn’t really going to move the needle in the grand scheme of things for the Ravens given how often the team is willing to blitz and find pressures outside of asking their defensive front to win one on one.
It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and, without digging, letting Ngakoue walk may seem like an odd strategy for a Ravens defense that finished in the middle of the pack in pressure rate in 2020 (Pro Football Focus had them 18th in the NFL). But the role, pay, and production didn’t add up, period.
Meanwhile, Baltimore will have a more challenging task in filling the void left by Judon, but the team did go out and target a first-round selection to presumably step into that void. Judon came to Baltimore as a late-round selection out of Grand Valley State and the raw athleticism he illustrated eventually blossomed into a productive cog in the Ravens’ defensive front. He didn’t have his best season in 2020 (that honor belongs to 2019), but he nevertheless is a more well-rounded presence than what Ngakoue was able to offer the team during his brief stay with the Ravens. But even Judon’s departure feels like an absorbable blow when accounting for *how* he got many of his pressures and sack production over the course of his breakout with the Ravens.
Baltimore has been the NFL’s most aggressive defense over the last two years, blitzing at a higher rate than any other team across the league. And those pressure looks often yield free runs at the quarterbacks. If you’re going to be replacing a viable run defender with prototypical size, length, and athleticism for the position, what better prospect to target for his exact role than Odafe Oweh out of Penn State?
The big knock on Oweh out of Penn State was that his pass rush plan wasn’t adequately developed—but those issues should be mitigated in the Ravens’ front, where free runs are available to him in Judon’s role given the blitz rate of Wink Martindale’s defense. And Oweh is comfortably a better athlete than Judon, too. Judon owned better size coming out of his respective draft, but Mockdraftable.com has Oweh’s athletic profile owning a sizable advantage.
40-yard dash: 99th percentile (Oweh) versus 74th percentile (Judon)
10-yard split: 87th percentile (Oweh) versus 48th percentile (Judon)
Vertical jump: 96th percentile (Oweh) versus 74th percentile (Judon)
Standing broad jump: 99th percentile (Oweh) versus 19th percentile (Judon)
Short shuttle: 90th percentile (Oweh) versus 25th percentile (Judon)
3-cone drill: 94th percentile (Oweh) versus 5th percentile (Judon)
All of this combined with Judon’s four-year, $54.5M free agency contract with the New England Patriots? The financial transition and athletic upside make a ton of sense, particularly for a role in a defense that was partly dependent on blitz packages helping to aid in creating clear lanes to the quarterback. It’s a lot easier to get home when you’re unblocked, so Oweh’s concerning pass rush skill set can be marginalized here in Baltimore.
In all, the Ravens should feel optimistic about their long-term flexibility against the salary cap thanks to the decision to let their most high-profile pass rushers walk out the door. With a contract extension looming for Jackson, getting younger and cheaper at one of football’s most expensive positions offers them key spending power for 2022 and beyond. And when you consider just how much (or little) Baltimore got for their money last year, it makes the decision that much simpler.
Ideally, yes. The Ravens would have more established firepower off the edge. But this defense isn’t dependent on such pressure anyway, they’ve led the league in five-plus man pressures in each of the last three seasons for a reason! So to circle back to the initial question, yes. Baltimore has enough in the pass rush department to make a deep postseason run. The changes to the rush room are notable, but they’re economically sound and certainly not devastating.