The Ravens' new mix of outside linebackers is using OTAs to fast-forward their development as a group.
Tyus Bowser, who re-signed this offseason, is coming off his best all-around season and looking forward to taking on a larger leadership role. Jaylon Ferguson is entering his third season looking to take a major step forward, while draft picks Odafe Oweh (first round) and Daelin Harris (fifth round) want to make an immediate impact.
So far during OTAs, Outside Linebackers Coach Drew Wilkins is impressed with what he sees. Pernell McPhee, the veteran of the group, has not been attending while caring for his ailing great grandmother in Florida. However, McPhee has consistently participated in virtual meetings, and Wilkins senses that he's working with a group of outside linebackers who are determined to make a statement after the departures of Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue during free agency.
"The makeup of our room right now, it's hard not to love it," Wilkins said. "Every one of them, despite the difference in age, they all have something to prove right now. They all have that chip on their shoulder."
Wilkins and the entire coaching staff will spend plenty of time with Oweh and Hayes, trying to accelerate their adjustment to the NFL. Oweh has off-the-charts athleticism that blew Wilkins away at Penn State's Pro Day, but Wilkins said Oweh and Hayes have also been coachable and competitive.
"They hit the ground running from the first Zoom meeting," Wilkins said. "The thing I love about both of their mentalities and their attitudes, right now, is it's not just, 'Hey, this NFL door is open; I'm happy for the opportunity.' They want to kick the door down and make an impact right away in Year 1, and I think both those guys have that personality, they have that desire to do that from the jump."
Ferguson reported to OTAs in excellent shape, and the Ravens hope he's finding an increased comfort level entering his third season in their defensive system. Bowser made a significant jump during his third NFL year in 2019, recording a career-high five sacks. Wilkins likes the speed and quick recognition that Ferguson has shown during practices.
"The thing I'm most excited about with Jaylon is how he's in such great shape right now, and he really has a grasp of the playbook that he hasn't had the last two years," Wilkins said. "Every year, he's getting sharper and sharper with it, to the point now where he really is telling the young guys what to do, which is exciting to see. He's running to the football, he's playing with great effort. He's really checking all the boxes right now for us."
Bowser's desire to become a more vocal leader will be an asset to the younger outside linebackers. Having a new contract has done nothing to diminish his desire to be an impact player, and Bowser is setting the tone with his participation and leadership at OTAs. If anything, he feels more motivated to improve.
"I've always had that mindset of going out there and proving myself each and every day," Bowser said. "The contract, that's great, I'm thankful for it and I'm glad to be here. But that doesn't mean to relax. That's the mindset that I'm going to have, too – is to go out there and work hard regardless of if I'm still on a rookie contract or making millions of dollars."
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale takes advantage of Bowser's versatility to create matchup problems and confusion for opposing quarterbacks. Wilkins believes keeping Bowser in Baltimore was a key offseason move that should not be overlooked.
"He's great in coverage, and it's not just the plays on the ball, because he has tremendous ball skills – he's at an elite level there," Wilkins said. "He takes away the open underneath routes or the guy going to the flat. Now that quarterback has to hold the ball for an extra second, and you see the production that comes with that.
"He's also a really dynamic and dangerous pass rusher for us that can really move across the front. It's a great piece for Wink to use on third down, because you know how creative Wink is; he'll put him anywhere. He'll put him at nose tackle, he'll line him up like he's a safety and blitz him. So, it really is a great, versatile weapon for us, and our defense."
The departures of Judon and Ngakuoe have created an opportunity for others to step forward. Wilkins is confident that his group will rise to the occasion.
"The young players who are coming in, they're excited to learn," Wilkins said. "We also have two guys [who] not a lot of people might know about – they both played in the Pittsburgh game – Chauncey Rivers and Aaron Adeoye. They've been great contributors, too. Those guys are going to be players in this league, as well. So, [it's a] really great room."