When Brent Urban signed with the Tennessee Titans last month, it completed an exodus from the Ravens’ defense that exceeded what anyone expected in terms of scope.
Five of the 11 guys who played the most snaps on defense for the Ravens in 2018 are going to line up for other teams this year.
Eric Weddle, who played a team-high 98.1 percent of the defensive snaps last season, is with the Los Angeles Rams. C.J. Mosley, who ranked No. 3 in snaps, signed with the New York Jets. Terrell Suggs, who was No. 5 in snaps, is with the Arizona Cardinals. Za’Darius Smith, who ranked seventh in snaps, signed with the Green Bay Packers. Urban was No. 11 in snaps.
Not to alarm you, but those guys combined to play 3,847 snaps in 2018, which was 33.7 percent of all the defensive playing time.
If that sounds like a lot, it is.
Replacing almost 4,000 snaps is a challenge, especially given how central the players were to the defense’s success in 2018. Their departures prompt key questions. Who is going to rush the passer? Is there going to be a Weddle-like coach on the field?
Nonetheless, I sense no panic among Ravens officials about their ability to maintain the caliber of the defense.
It’s not as if the cupboard is bare. The Ravens still have the Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10 highest-ranked guys in terms of snaps played on defense last season. With the addition of marquee free agent Earl Thomas, the Ravens’ defensive backs have a combined salary cap hit of $58.9 million this season, which is easily the league high and more than a third of the team’s entire payroll. Yet they still have enough cap room to make more moves on defense.
But the key to the Ravens’ ability to maintain their standard on defense isn’t free agency so much as the effort they put into developing new talent.
It’s the unit they’re known for, the breeding ground for Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and so many others, and they’re always taking more swings on that side on the ball, investing high draft picks and/or finding useful undrafted rookies. It’s what they do.
Not all of the high picks and new players develop as envisioned, but if and when enough do, a new generation is always percolating.
Although they lost a ton of veteran defensive talent, the Ravens believe players such as Matthew Judon, Michael Pierce, Patrick Onwuasor, Tavon Young and Marlon Humphrey are ready to form a new nucleus. Suggs blessed the idea after he signed with Arizona, saying “it’s time” for the Ravens’ new generation to take the spotlight.
How does such a major transformation occur with relatively little concern for the unit slipping much, if at all? Because the Ravens never stop feeding their defensive beast, adding quality talent.
Pierce and Onwuasor came to Baltimore in 2016 as undrafted free agents. Young and Judon were third-day draft picks that year. Humphrey was a first-round pick the next year.
The organization’s penchant for drafting defensive linemen (they’ve taken at least one every year since 2008) might not be so exciting, but that focus insures the D-line against a falloff in performance. Urban might be gone, but Chris Wormley, a 2017 third-round draft pick, appears ready to inherit his role.
Even in a year like this, when the Ravens went offense with their high draft picks, they paid heed to the defense. They selected a pass rusher (Jaylon Ferguson), cornerback (Iman Marshall) and defensive tackle (Daylon Mack) in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. All look promising. Their best-known undrafted free agent is a defensive lineman (Gerald Willis).
Those players now enter the pipeline behind 2018 additions such as linebacker Kenny Young, cornerback Anthony Averett, defensive end Zach Sieler and linebacker Chris Board, all of whom could see more playing time in 2019.
They aren’t always exciting additions, but the Ravens add new defensive blood seemingly by force of habit. As a result, when faced with an emergency such as the departure of nearly 4,000 snaps, they’re prepared for it.