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Eisenberg: Retaining Brandon Williams Will Prove Key in Continuing Defensive Tradition

Posted Jul 15, 2017

The Ravens have an intriguing collection of young, talented defensive linemen, but it all starts with the man in the middle.

As free agency approached in March, it was popular to speculate that the Ravens wouldn’t retain nose tackle Brandon Williams. They didn’t have a ton of salary cap room, and Williams, a premier player in his prime, was going to be expensive.

After the Ravens signed Williams to a five-year, $54 million deal, it was popular to speculate that the Ravens may have overpaid for him.

My take is they did NOT overpay; they did what was necessary to retain the centerpiece of their defensive interior – a fundamental building block of any football team.

Imagine how their defensive interior would look today if they had not kept Williams, who was one of three defensive line starters in 2016. The other two are gone.

Lawrence Guy, who was also a free agent, signed with the New England Patriots. And the Ravens traded Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles in April.

If they also had lost Williams, they would be fielding an entirely new defensive line in 2017.

Yes, they’ve drafted an interesting collection of prospects for those jobs over the past few years, and several, if not almost all, will have roles in 2017. But a 100 percent compete makeover? I’m not sure that would have been advisable.

It’s a moot point because Williams will still man the middle, giving the defensive front not only continuity but also the kind of solid foundation that can be counted on not to crumble. In a recent assessment of NFL defensive lines, USA Today wrote that Williams “is a black hole for opposing runners.”

It must be noted, though, that the Ravens’ defensive line was ranked No. 28 out of 32 by USA Today because they’re “going to be looking for unproven players to emerge alongside Williams.”

It’s certainly true that players who have not started will now do so. But that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare.

Putting the Ravens at No. 28 out of 32 is, I think, a pretty serious whiff. They might be deeper in potential defensive line contributors than they are at any position.

Michael Pierce, last year’s undrafted rookie surprise, ranked No. 13 against the run among all defensive tackles in the league in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. If Williams had departed, Pierce likely would have inherited his job.

Now, Pierce becomes the likeliest bet to line up beside Williams on first and second downs, as he did more often than Jernigan anyway late in 2016, when the Ravens attained a No. 5 league ranking against the run.

But Pierce still has to earn the job, and he faces competition from Carl Davis, a 2015 third-round pick who didn’t play last season because of an injury. Now healthy, Davis is a mobile tackle with a high upside.

As for the spot Guy formerly manned, a spirited battle for snaps will unfold during training camp and the preseason.

Brent Urban, a massive former fourth round pick, performed solidly in a limited role in 2016. He’s the best bet to become the starter. But Bronson Kaufusi, a 2016 third-round pick, was a hulking presence during spring practices after missing last season with an injury – an interesting candidate. The team is high on rookie Chris Wormley, yet another third-round pick. There’s also Willie Henry, a 2016 fourth-round pick.

The bottom line is the Ravens are deep in possibilities, and there could be snaps for many of them, as Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees likes to rotate as many as six linemen in and out during games.

To me, it looks like a young, athletic group built around a solid centerpiece. Retaining Williams was the key move, putting the Ravens in position to continue their longstanding tradition of ranking among the league leaders in stopping the run – a tradition that has the fingerprints of franchise icons such as Rex Ryan and Clarence Brooks all over it, among many.

I would be surprised if the Ravens struggle to uphold that tradition in 2017, even with a largely made-over unit in place.

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