NFL Draft: Should the Ravens target a Pass-Rusher early?
Depending on how free agency plays out, there is a good chance the Ravens will be without their top two pass-rushers from the 2018 season as Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs could both find themselves on different teams in 2019. Realistically, even if the Ravens bring back Suggs, they still need to consider how the pass-rush will look in the future as he will not be a building block moving forward. Matt Judon is a nice player, but he is not a premier pass-rusher and neither Tim Williams or Tyus Bowser have shown enough to be relied on. Re-signing Za’Darius Smith would certainly solidify the group and lessen the need to draft a pass-rusher, but it seems unlikely he is brought back. So just how big of a need is pass-rush in the upcoming draft? Given the importance of pressuring the QB, I think the Ravens would have to strongly consider a pass-rusher in the first round.
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Fortunately for the Ravens, the strength of this upcoming draft is in the defensive front, and there should be a number of options on the table at #22. I am going put on my prognosticator hat and say it is likely that top prospects Nick Bosa, Josh Allen and Ed Oliver will be not available when the Ravens are on the clock. There is also a very good chance Montez Sweat will be taken before the Ravens select after turning in an epic combine performance. That still leaves several very interesting prospects that could be fits in Baltimore, and while it is probable that some are gone before the Ravens can draft them there will be options to help boost the pass-rush.
Currently, DE Brian Burns from Florida State would be my top target in the first round. He had an extremely impressive combine workout as he tested well and also looked incredibly fluid and natural in on-field drills. Burns was an immediate contributor for the Seminoles as he notched 8.5 sacks as a freshman and totaled 23 sacks and 38.5 tackles for loss over his three year career. There are some concerns about his playing size, but he weighed in at 249 lbs at the combine and still put up eye-popping athletic numbers. On tape, he has an explosive first step and at 6’5” has impressive length and good bend around the edge. As a rush LB in the Ravens front seven, Burns would be the perfect fit.
Another intriguing prospect that the Ravens will undoubtedly consider is DE Rashan Gary from Michigan. There is an obvious Harbaugh connection, but beyond that Gary would fit nicely in the Pernell McPhee/Za’Darius Smith role as an inside/outside rusher. Gary also tested extremely well at the combine highlighted by a 4.58 40 yard dash at 277 lbs. Many analysts will have him rated as a top 10-15 player, but I think there is a chance he falls down boards a bit because his production in college was underwhelming. Still, the athletic talent is obvious, and his upside should make him a lock to go in the first round.
Clemson’s DE Clelin Ferrell is an interesting player the Ravens will undoubtedly spend a lot of time on. He has excellent size and was extremely productive in college notching 27 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss over 3 seasons. However, he does not possess elite pass-rushing traits you would want from a first round edge rusher. He wins on the edge more with hand-usage and a relentless motor than with speed and athleticism making his ceiling perhaps a bit lower than some of the other first round prospects. There are legitimate concerns about how well his game will translate to the NFL, but it is hard to ignore the production and he has enough size and athleticism to be a quality if not elite player.
Jerry Tillery, DT from Notre Dame, is a potentially intriguing option as well. He was a highly productive interior pass-rusher and has ideal size at 6’6”, 295 lbs, to play the 5T in the Ravens base-defense and can kick inside to the 3T on passing downs. Tillery posted very impressive workout numbers for a DT, so his ceiling is quite high. The biggest concern with the Notre Dame product is his run defense, where he did not display the same level of dominance that would be expected from a player with his physical tools. He makes a lot sense for the Ravens especially if UFA Brent Urban leaves in free agency.
Jeffery Simmons, DT Miss St, is a wild card both because he suffered a torn ACL this offseason and because he has a checkered past dating back to a pre-college incident where he was charged with assault. It’s certainly possible that incident takes him off the Ravens board entirely, but if he is in consideration he has immense talent that could make him a huge steal. Barring injury or off the field concerns, Simmons would have likely merited a top 5 selection. He is an explosive defender who is dominant against the run and can wreak havoc to a passing game. Obviously, he is a player that will require a lot of work, but the potential here is hard to ignore.
Improving the pass-rush seems like a yearly offseason requirement in the NFL. Every defense can get better by increasing their ability to get after the QB. With the Ravens potentially losing two of their most productive edge-rushers, it seems that it will be a major need in the upcoming draft. In fact, I would consider it perhaps the team’s biggest need on defense with the ILB and Safety positions falling close behind. If the top linebackers are off the board it may come down to a decision between a pass-rusher and offensive lineman for the Ravens. I think both are going to be equally important for the team moving forward as they re-define themselves around QB Lamar Jackson.