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Eisenberg: Ravens Defense Has Huge Potential, But Questions Abound


The Ravens have invested free-agent dollars and high draft picks in their defense this offseason, obviously hoping to see it emerge as a formidable unit.

The organizational focus has produced vital new pieces such as Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey, facilitated the return of Brandon Williams and guaranteed that expectations for the 2017 defense will soar.

But the focus and investment doesn't guarantee the defense will just roll onto the field and start dominating opponents this fall.

Anyone who believes that needs to take a deep breath and slow down a bit. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees' 2017 unit is going to be a work in progress for awhile, perhaps even into the regular season.

Remember, it's going to be experiencing a lot of change, with perhaps as many as six new starters. It could take time for all those new pieces to adjust to each other.

There's also definitely a youth movement underway, with a handful of recent draft picks gaining larger roles. Young and hungry are attractive adjectives, but players who fit that description also experience growing pains.

Right now, a handful of starting jobs are vacant and questions abound. Who will replace Lawrence Guy and Timmy Jernigan as starters on the defensive line? Will Humphrey or Carr start opposite Jimmy Smith at cornerback? Is Kamalei Correa really ready to step in for Zachary Orr after playing so little as a rookie? Can young guys such as Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Matthew Judon spark a more effective pass rush?

Pees isn't complaining. The uncertainty is inevitable, a byproduct of so much new talent infiltrating his depth chart.

Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would love to be facing "difficult" problems such as deciding which of his valuable new puzzle pieces should get more snaps.

Nonetheless, there's still a process that has to unfold when so much youth and newness collides.

There isn't as much uncertainty in the secondary, which should be a team strength. Even though we're still almost six months away from games that count, you can tie a bow on the back-end personnel with Smith, Carr, Humphrey and Tavon Young as the cornerbacks and Jefferson and Eric Weddle as the safeties with Lardarius Webb backing them up.

The front seven is where more uncertainty lies. Right now, you can count on Brandon Williams, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs as starters, but that's it. The other four jobs are open.

In hindsight, though the decision to retain Williams was costly, it was close to essential. If he were gone along with Guy, who departed via free agency, and Jernigan, who was traded, the Ravens would be looking at finding an entirely new starting defensive line. I'm not sure that would bode well for the run defense.

As it is, while the pass rush has deservedly received attention as a primary area of need, the run defense also warrants scrutiny.

Williams is a terrific centerpiece, one of the league's top run stuffers, but after that, the questions are many.

How will the unit replace Orr, the team's top tackler in 2016? Will it be Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi or Chris Wormley replacing Guy? Can former undrafted free agent Michael Pierce replicate his strong rookie season and replace Jernigan? Are Carl Davis and Willie Henry ready to contribute?

Stopping the run has been Baltimore's first defensive commandment forever, and the 2016 defense upheld the tradition for the most part. The Ravens ranked No. 5 in the league in fewest yards allowed, and also No. 5 in fewest yards allowed per attempt.

But there was a palpable letdown in the final month of the season when teams began attacking the edges of the interior. In fact, the entire defense faded in the final month, prompting the comprehensive overhaul now underway -- an exciting project with sky-high potential.

Is it fair to have great expectations? I'd say so. Just remember (repeat after me) it's a process.

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