While training camp is still weeks away, Jaylon Ferguson can hardly wait.
Ferguson is a pass rusher, a player who makes his living putting quarterbacks on the ground. Mandatory minicamp and OTA’s were educational for Ferguson, as he learned the Ravens’ defensive schemes. But the third-round pick didn’t get to go full throttle like he will once training camp starts in July, with players wearing pads during practice.
That’s when Ferguson can really test some of his pass-rushing moves against the Ravens’ top offensive linemen. Ferguson won’t be hitting quarterback Lamar Jackson in practice, but the rookie edge rusher hopes to make his presence felt on a consistent basis. He knows there are questions about the Ravens’ pass rush, after the free agent departures of Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs.
Ferguson wants to put those concerns to rest.
“We’re going to be alright,” said Ferguson, who set the FBS career sacks record with 45 at Louisiana Tech. “We’ve got people in the room who know how to rush the passer. There’s competition every day. We’ve got guys who have been in the league a long time, but nobody’s spot’s secure right now. We’re all still pushing for it. We’re going to be pushing each other.”
Matthew Judon returns as the Ravens’ premier pass rusher with 15 sacks over the past two seasons. However, it remains to be seen who will pick up the slack for Suggs and Smith, who combined for 15 ½ sacks in 2018.
There are a host of candidates, including free agent acquisitions Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee, and returning players Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. However, Ferguson was targeted in the draft to help the Baltimore’s pass rush remain a strength.
“We lost some really good pass rushers, and we think that Jaylon can come in and really add to the other guys that we have and really help us on third downs and passing situations,” General Manager Eric DeCosta said following the draft. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing defensive players and outside linebackers and defensive ends, and this guy had a really, really awesome grasp of pass rush techniques, studying NFL players. It was impressive to us. It showed a level of professionalism that we respected.”
Ferguson’s talent is obvious, but his work ethic has been a key to his success. It took more than just raw ability for Ferguson to break the previous collegiate sack record of 44 sacks set by Suggs at Arizona State. Just like Suggs, Ferguson believes pre-game preparation is a key to success. He has spent the past few months diving into the Ravens’ defensive playbook with passion, so that he can play aggressively and avoid mistakes.
“The biggest thing other than adjusting to the speed of the game is adjusting to the bigger playbook, more plays, more assignments, actually knowing defenses, actually knowing offenses,” Ferguson said.
“It’s gotten better now. When I first reported to minicamp I was doing more thinking than playing. But we’ve got a great defensive coaching staff. They chopped it down for us. Pretty quickly we were able to play a lot faster, instead of just thinking.”
Ferguson looks the part of an edge rusher with size (6-foot-5, 275 pounds), long arms and a quick first step. He wants to emulate Suggs as a three-down linebacker, able to set the edge and defend the run while bringing pressure from the outside in passing situations.
But as a rookie, Ferguson’s primary responsibility is to pressure the quarterback. Last season, Bradley Chubb of the Denver Broncos (12 sacks) was the only rookie with 10 or more sacks, an example of how challenging it is for rookies to make an immediate impact. However, the Ravens’ believe they have a collection of pass rushers ready to accept the challenge of losing Suggs and Smith.
“I’m excited about it,” Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We can become even more multiple, because it is a different group and their body types and their styles, so I’m really excited about our pass rush.
“You’re going to miss a Terrell Suggs. Everybody here is. Everybody in the city of Baltimore is. They’re going to miss Terrell Suggs, and I’m not going to sit up here and act like it’s just the next man up. There is a transition period, and the biggest transition, really, is just the communication of the defense, but that’s all coming together, so that’s exciting to me. That has recharged our energy, our batteries, of attacking the new season, and we’re looking forward to it. Because really, nobody cares who we lost.”
Ferguson isn’t worried about how many sacks he’ll get once the games begin. His primary goal is to win, and to help the Ravens’ defense maintain its stature as one of the league’s best.
Once training camp begins, Ferguson believes the addition of contact in padded practices, joint practices and preseason games will play to his strengths.
“I’m a physical player,” Ferguson said. “I’m not going to get out of my routine during the break. I’m going to stay in my playbook, try to get one percent better every day. That adds up.
“We haven’t had pads on, so I haven’t really been able to get my hands on people to see how they react. But I’m the second player the Ravens picked (in the draft). I’m ready to show everybody what I’ve got.”