Making personnel moves isn’t the only way the Ravens can improve this offseason.
General Manager Eric DeCosta expects some of their returning players to develop, perhaps mirroring the jump that inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor made last season. In just three seasons with the Ravens, Onwuasor ascended from undrafted free agent to one of the team’s top defensive playmakers.
“I’ve been pleasantly encouraged by some of the younger players and the growth that they’ve made,” DeCosta said. “I think we’ve become a younger team. I think we have some other players that are going to make some more jumps this year, and I think we’re headed in the right direction, roster-wise.”
Part of DeCosta’s process this offseason, along with the coaching staff, will be to gauge whether some young players are ready to step into a larger role. Their strategy in free agency and the draft depends upon those evaluations.
Here are five players the Ravens may need to make a jump next season:
CB Anthony Averett
A fourth-round pick in 2018, Averett played primarily on special teams and was overshadowed in a strong Ravens rookie class that included Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr. and Gus Edwards. However, Averett could be part of the secondary rotation next season as a nickel or dime corner, especially if veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith is traded or released. Averett acquitted himself well in his most extended action of 2018 when he played 39 defensive snaps during a 27-24 overtime loss in Kansas City. Though he is just 5-foot-11, Averett has superb leaping ability and the athleticism to play taller wide receivers. Having cornerback depth is critical to any defense, and Averett will have a chance to earn more playing time next season.
OLB Tyus Bowser
This could be a make-or-break season for Bowser, a second-round pick in 2017. After recording three sacks as a rookie, Bowser had just ½ sack in 162 snaps in 2018.
The Ravens are looking for steady improvement from Bowser, like they have gotten from outside linebackers Matt Judon and Za’Darius Smith. If Smith and/or Terrell Suggs leave in free agency, then Bowser’s development will become even more critical because the Ravens may not land a consistent pass rusher in the draft or free agency.
Fellow young outside linebacker Tim Williams, who was taken two rounds after Bowser, also falls into the same category.
S Chuck Clark
If Eric Weddle does not return, Clark could have a legitimate chance to compete for a starting role. When safety Tony Jefferson missed two games with a sprained ankle, Clark started and performed well. Baltimore’s 26-14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, when Clark started at safety, was one of Baltimore’s best defensive performances of the season. The following week, Clark intercepted NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
Playing behind savvy veterans like Weddle and Jefferson has surely helped Clark’s development, and he has been a consistent performer on special teams. With two years of NFL experience under his belt, Clark is a player to watch if the Ravens part ways with Weddle.
TE Hayden Hurst
Hurst’s struggle to find a consistent role after missing the first four games with a foot stress fracture has been well-documented. However, he made nine of his 13 catches after Week 11 and seemed to gain a comfort level late in the season.
The Ravens drafted Hurst in the first round, so the expectations are high. Andrews had the better rookie season at tight end, but the Ravens still expect Hurst to become a go-to guy. Having Hurst emerge as a bigger threat would be huge for Jackson and the Ravens’ offense.
G-C Bradley Bozeman
Bozeman played in 14 games as a rookie, probably more than the Ravens expected, including a start at left guard. He played center in college at Alabama and that could be Bozeman’s best position. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman runs a diversified running attack, and the Ravens plan to continue taking advantage of Jackson’s running ability. The Ravens will likely add an interior offensive lineman via the draft or free agency, but Bozeman could still be given a chance to compete for the starting job at either guard or center.