50 Words or Less: A Critical Offseason for Two Young Defensive Talents

_Left:_ DT Justin Madubuike (92); _Right:_ ILB Patrick Queen (6)

The kickoff of the Ravens' offseason program centered on how to avoid as many injuries as last year, and with good reason. The recovery of star players and avoidance of another plague is the biggest key to Baltimore's 2022 success. It will be the focus of attention all offseason.

Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Steve Saunders said the Ravens "tweaked" their conditioning program, mostly by easing into it slower. There's more time to do that with a normal offseason this year in our post-COVID NFL landscape. The Ravens probably felt they had to play catch-up the last two years.

Baltimore didn't need to blow up its conditioning program and start over. As Saunders said, "philosophically, the program still stands on its own merits." In 2018, the Ravens had the NFL's fewest adjusted games lost because of injuries. They were 16th in 2019 and eighth in 2020.

It's good to see linebacker Patrick Queen and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike at voluntary workouts, as they're both entering critical seasons. Both have flashed enormous potential, but they know they have the tools to become defensive centerpieces. It's their first true offseasons after COVID stole the first two.

Madubuike has been compared to one of the game's most dominant defenders, Aaron Donald. That's a high bar, but one Madubuike has his eyes on. Watching Donald win a ring, "reiterates to me just the hard work aspect," Madubuike said. "I feel like I have a lot more to prove."

Watching his tape from last year, Queen said "the bad spots were bad, and the good spots were great." Queen felt he got off blocks and recognized plays better. Once he gets the fundamentals down, his talent will shine more consistently. The Ravens decide on Queen's fifth-year option next offseason.

Maybe Deebo Samuel never actually becomes available for trade, but it's hard to imagine a player that better suits the Ravens offense, even if he didn't run the ball as much. Baltimore needs more yards after catch from its receivers, which would allow Jackson's shorter throws to be maximized.

Wide receiver Rashod Bateman could be a strong YAC guy. I was impressed with his ability to make defenders miss last year and he has the explosiveness to get up the field. An offseason in the weight room could add some more physicality to his game too.

Mark my words: many of you are sleeping on Bateman. Expectations for rookies are often too high. When a rookie's year starts with abdominal surgery, expectations should go out the window. "I would definitely say it affected me a lot," Bateman said. He sure looks explosive now.

The healthy return of Patrick Ricard this offseason shouldn't be discounted. His hip procedure limited him for much of last offseason. As one reporter remarked, it looks like Ricard is in pancake-serving form already. That will help open up a called run game that lacked second-level explosiveness last year.

Now onto the NFL Draft. In his latest seven-round mock draft, NFL.com's Chad Reuter has three quarterbacks off the board before the Ravens' pick. This is a dream scenario that seems possible as the buzz builds around this previously dogged QB class the closer we get to the first round.

The domino effect in Reuter's mock is that LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. falls to Baltimore. The Ravens would look like Usain Bolt turning in the card if that happened. I believe they'd do the same if a top pass rusher, such as Florida State's Jermaine Johnson, fell to 14.

I've written my thoughts on a modest trade up for someone such as Stingley. But with so many needs, the more likely outcome is a move back because there will still be strong options and the Ravens can scratch one of these: cornerback, edge, offensive tackle, inside linebacker, defensive line.

Baltimore's plethora of mid-round picks (seven in Rounds 3-4) will probably center around adding insurance for rehabbing players and depth. Running back (J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards), tight end (Nick Boyle), offensive tackle (Ronnie Stanley), defensive end (Derek Wolfe), and cornerback (Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters) could all get attention.

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