Eisenberg: Fallout From Not Drafting an Outside Linebacker

OLB Matthew Judon

I don't think the Ravens set out to go through the 2020 NFL Draft without selecting an outside linebacker. They went in with an open mind and it just happened – one of those unpredictable outcomes of a complicated process.

The Ravens drafted much too late in the first-round to grab a no-doubt difference-making edge performer such as Chase Young. Then, even though several highly-rated outside linebackers were available when they picked later, especially in the second and third rounds, they saw more value in players at other positions.

Regardless of why it happened, though, what matters going forward is it did happen. What does it mean? What is the fallout from the Ravens not drafting an outside linebacker in 2020?

One thing, no question, is the position likely will rank among their top priorities in next year's draft. For now, they've assembled a solid group through free agency and prior drafts, but only one player in that group, Jaylon Ferguson, is under contract beyond 2020.

That'll change if the Ravens agree to a long-term deal with Matthew Judon, a 2019 Pro Bowl selection set to play under the franchise tag this season; the two sides are talking, according to General Manager Eric DeCosta. The team could also sign another outside linebacker to a long-term deal.

Absent any of those developments, though, the depth chart at the position is full of players who aren't in for the long haul, at least contractually. And the most effective (and cost-effective) way to change that is by investing some prime draft capital, i.e., a high pick, with the hope that such a player becomes a long-term answer.

Admittedly, with the Ravens expected to have another winning season in 2020, edge performers of Young's caliber figure to be long gone yet again when Baltimore is on the clock in 2021. The market for pass rushers is hot. But that's a down-the-road problem.

One way or another, the Ravens need to think hard about restocking a position that has long been one of their strengths with the likes of Terrell Suggs, Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas. Suggs is the most recent outside linebacker to join the Ravens as a first-round pick. That was in 2003, when they owned the 10th-overall pick.

But while not drafting an outside linebacker this year certainly has long-term ramifications, the short-term ramifications aren't that significant. The Ravens weren't likely to get a pass rusher who was an immediate difference-maker anyway – not with their top pick, No. 28 overall, or with any of their other picks.

In other words, it was already pretty clear before the draft that Judon, Ferguson, Tyus Bowser, Jihad Ward and a to-be-named veteran would be taking most of the snaps at outside linebacker in 2020. That lingering uncertainty was cleared up when Pernell McPhee agreed to terms last week.

Those players combined for 21 of the Ravens' 37 sacks in 2019, and there's every reason to believe they could produce similarly in 2020. McPhee is by far the oldest at 31.

But it's important to remember the very nature of the Ravens' pass rush is changing in 2020, with the team looking to get more from the D-line and interior. That area hasn't been a big part of the rush in recent years, but the Ravens are hoping newcomers Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe change that.

Campbell and Wolfe combined for 13.5 sacks in 2019, which is 11.5 more than the players they're replacing.

Third-round rookie Justin Madubuike, an explosive big man in the middle, could also provide more interior rush than departed defensive tackle Michael Pierce.

When Suggs was in his prime, the defense could count on him to lead the rush from the outside. But Suggs is gone and things have changed. Setting the edge against the run is a big part of the job description for the Ravens' outside linebackers. While still an important part of the rush, they're just part of the rush blueprint along with those new interior pieces and Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's array of blitz packages, which led to 16 different Ravens registering at least a half-sack in 2019.

The Ravens believe the sum of those various parts could be an effective pass rush in 2020, with the outside linebackers upholding their part of the blueprint.

After 2020, well, let's just say things are up in the air.

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