The Ravens are looking for edge rushers and the upcoming draft is a good place to find them.
Only eight teams had fewer sacks in 2021 than the Ravens (34), who had seven games in which they recorded just one sack or none. The Ravens thought they had a deal with pass rusher Za'Darius Smith during free agency, but he eventually backed out and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, Baltimore's sack leader from last season, Tyus Bowser (7.0 sacks), is recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in the season finale, while Justin Houston (4.5 sacks) is an unsigned free agent who may not return.
With nine picks in the first four rounds, the Ravens may take multiple edge rushers in the draft, including one as early as the 14th pick. In a passing league, impact edge rushers are highly coveted.
"Typically those guys go fast," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "We think they'll be a run on those guys, probably in the top 10. There might be a guy or two that falls down to us at 14, potentially."
Lance Zeirlein of NFL.com ranks edge defenders as the No. 1 position group in this year's draft, led by Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan, Travon Walker of Georgia, Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon and Jermaine Johnson II of Florida State.
How good are the top edge rushers in this class? In his latest mock draft, Todd McShay of ESPN has Hutchinson, Walker and Thibodeaux as the first three players selected.
McShay has the Ravens taking Johnson at No. 14, a scenario that would immediately add an imposing presence to Baltimore's pass rush. After transferring from Georgia, Johnson blew up at Florida State last season with 11 ½ sacks and 17 ½ tackles for loss. He has a big body (6-foot-5, 254 pounds) and he's a strong run defender, which fits the Ravens' profile for an outside linebacker. Johnson could be a natural fit for Baltimore's defense, lining up opposite Odafe Oweh, who had five sacks as a rookie, and joining Bowser in the outside linebacker rotation once he returns to health.
"Jermaine's a great example of a guy taking advantage of an opportunity," Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz said. "He was at Georgia as a backup. He goes down to Florida and really puts together an outstanding year."
Another edge rusher Baltimore could eye is George Karlaftis of Purdue, a powerful player who told 105.7 The Fan that he met with the Ravens last week.
"I know there's interest on their part," Karlaftis said. "Obviously, I would love to be a Raven."
Hortiz said Karlaftis already plays like a Raven.
"Karlaftis, you watch him play, one thing you can guarantee yourself is that he's going to play hard all the time," Hortiz said. "Smart, productive kid, passionate. You just love the way he plays."
Beyond the first round, another pass rusher to watch is David Ojabo of Michigan, who suffered a torn Achilles during his Pro Day workout earlier this month. Ojabo played for Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald at Michigan last year, which gives the Ravens insight into Ojabo that other teams don't have. If Ojabo is still available in the second round, the Ravens could reunite Macdonald and Ojabo if they believe he'll be an impact player once he gets healthy and are willing to wait.
"He's a tremendous talent," DeCosta said. "You all saw what he did at Michigan this year opposite Hutchinson.
"There are guys in the second, third and fourth rounds that we're kind of lucky that we have the chance to look at some different players, meaning potentially some of these undersized 4-3 defensive ends really do fit us as outside linebackers. Our coaches are, right now, looking at those guys, scouring the country, going to workouts, going to Pro Days, and we'll have a good strong board."