Position Roll Caw is a weekly series that takes an in-depth look at each Position Rooms in the 2018 Baltimore Ravens leading up to Training Camp. We look at the players, the history, and the expectations for each group.
Michael Pierce, DT, 3rd Year Veteran, Samford University – Pierce was part of the 2016 Undrafted Free Agent class for the Ravens and made the team off an impressive preseason, which he then parlayed into a strong regular season campaign. As part of the DL rotation, he posted 35 tackles and 2 sacks. In 2017, he stepped into a starting role in place of Timmy Jernigan and recorded 49 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 fumble recoveries. Pierce and Brandon Williams combine to form quite a run stopping tandem, but Pierce will look to round out his game, with his future contract hopes in mind.
Brandon Williams, DT, 6th Year Veteran, Missouri Southern State – Williams was a 3rd round pick in the 2013 draft and, while he doesn’t post a lot of stats, his play on the field speaks loudly. When Williams is in the middle of the DL, he provides immense strength and run stopping abilities. Williams has 194 career tackles, but just 4.5 sacks as his strength is clearly in the run defense. Williams is paid as a Top 5 Defensive Lineman, which may give the Ravens pause in future years as they assess his value in the overall defense.
Brent Urban, DE, 5th Year Veteran, University of Virginia – Urban is a former 4th round pick, but has had a career plagued by injuries, followed by glimpses of promise, bookended with more injuries. Urban tore his ACL in his rookie season and missed the whole year. In 2015, he then tore his bicep in camp and missed the first 10 games of the season. However, in his first NFL game, he blocked a potential game winning Field Goal by the Browns, which was returned for a game winning Touchdown by the Ravens. In his 3rd season, he played all 16 games, but recorded just 10 tackles. In 2017, he won a starting job with a strong preseason, but was lost in Week 3 with a foot injury. Due to his shown talents and abilities when healthy, the Ravens game Urban a 1 year deal to hopefully get right with injuries and show more of his impressive form from 2017.
Willie Henry, DT, 3rd Year Veteran, University of Michigan – Henry was a 4th round pick in 2016, but was outplayed by Michael Pierce in the preseason and was placed on Injured Reserve after being inactive all but one game in his rookie season and without a single snap on defense. In 2017, Henry was a backup on the defensive line, but benefited from a rash of injuries and was able to earn snaps and even 3 starts. He finished 2017 with 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He figures to be a more prominent member of the DL rotation in 2018 after his improved play in 2017.
Carl Davis, DT, 4th Year Veteran, University of Iowa – Smith had a strong rookie season in 2015 as a 4th round draft pick, racking up 5.5 sacks. His 2016, however, was disappointing, only posting 10 tackles and 1 sack. He was able to bounce back a little in 2017, recording 15 tackles and 3 sacks while earning a spot on the defense roughly 49% of the snaps. In his final year of his contract, he needs to show a bit more value if he wants to earn a 2nd contract with the Ravens after 2018.
Bronson Kaufusi, DE, 3rd Year Veteran, Brigham Young University – Much like his fellow 2013 NFL Draft teammate Kamalei Correa, Kaufusi has been a bit of a quagmire in his time with the Ravens. He was drafted with an impressive highlight reel as a physical force against the run on the line, but was lost to injury in training camp his rookie year. Finally healthy in 2017, he struggled to get onto the field, even with injuries to players above him, and only posted 4 tackles in 3 games.
Chris Wormley, DT, 2nd Year Veteran, University of Michigan – Drafted to be depth behind Pierce and Williams, Chris Wormley found himself inactive much of his rookie season, but did play in 7 games and post 5 tackles. He is also struggling to make an impact, though he could get over the hump in his 2nd year on the club.
Zach Sieler, DE, Rookie, Ferris State – Sieler will forever carry the honor/burden of being the final draft pick in Ozzie Newsome’s 20+ year career running the Ravens draft room. Sieler fits Ozzie’s usual mold though, as a small school, tough nose defensive lineman, picked in a late round. As a 7th round pick, Sieler isn’t being expected to do much, but could eventually find a role as a 5-technique lineman on the team. He had an impressive 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss in 2016 at Ferris State.
Myles Humphrey, DE, Rookie, Shepherd University – Humphrey is listed as a DE, but currently weighs in at just 244 pounds, so unless he majorly bulks up before camp, it would seem likely that he rotates between LB and DE. A native of Upper Marlboro, MD, Humphrey was named the Mountain East Conference DPOY with 11.5 sacks in his senior season and 18 Tackles for a Loss.
Christian LaCouture, DE, Rookie, Louisiana State University – Another undrafted free agent from 2018, LaCouture is the only rookie Defensive Lineman with the Ravens to be from a major athletic program. He missed his entire 2016 year due to injury, but in 2017 posted 66 tackles and 6 sacks for the Tigers. He has a natural fit as a 5-technique DL, but could also bulk up and fill more of a Pierce/Williams/Wormley role as a DT.
(Likely keep 7-8 DLs)
LOCK – Williams, Pierce, Urban, Henry, Wormley
BUBBLE – Davis, Kaufusi, Sieler
CAMP BODY – LaCouture, Humphrey
2017 Review, IN JUST ONE PARAGRAPH:
The Ravens Defensive Line in 2017 stood a major test with a rash of injuries to the group. Michael Pierce was the only Defensive Lineman to play in all 16 contests, with Brandon Williams missing significant games due to injury, and starting DE Brent Urban lost to injury after just 3 games. This forced depth players like Kaufusi, Henry, and Wormley, all of whom had never appeared in NFL games prior to 2017, to step into major roles on the field. The result was a trial by fire, as the Ravens were gashed for over 100 team rushing yards in 5 straight games following the Urban injury. This is coincidentally the stretch that Brandon Williams also missed due to injuries as well. The game after Williams returned to the lineup, the run defense recovered nicely, holding the next 6 opponents to an average of 66 rushing yards per game. The final 3 games of 2017 proved a bit more challenging, as they allowed an average of 123 rushing yards in those games. The Defensive Line posted just 5 sacks in 2017, with 9 pass deflections, but 0 turnovers.
2018 SEASON EXPECTATIONS:
The test for the 2017 Ravens Defensive Line exposed the shaky depth behind the starting players, but it also allowed for several young guys to get their feet wet and grow into bigger roles. Willie Henry was viewed as a bit of a disappointing player after being outplayed by Michael Pierce in 2016, but in 2017 he settled into a strong rotational role and earned more playing time for 2018. Chris Wormley may not have quite been ready to step in, but he got valuable snaps on field as a rookie which he can use in his development. Carl Davis had long been a mostly inactive player for the team, but he got his opportunity to get on the field in 2017 and had mixed results. Bronson Kaufusi, with his first chance to contribute, was a bit more disappointing, but that certainly gives him more motivation to prove pundits wrong in 2018. While the Ravens surely suffered from the double whammy of losing Williams between Week 2 and 3 and losing Urban early in Week 3, they also got key snaps for young players which should benefit them when they may need to step in this year. The litmus test for this group will be if depth players can continue to step up and grow. Bronson Kaufusi and Carl Davis are not guaranteed spots because there are rookies and 2nd year players that may outplay them in 2018 and thus make them expendable. But those young players need to take advantage of the opportunity to produce when they have their limited opportunities to do so, otherwise the depth behind our established starters will continue to be a huge dropoff when injuries inevitably hit.
Another key for the 2018 group is going to be meeting expectations. I posted the 5 sacks stat in the 2017 review, but the Ravens aren’t looking for many sacks from the Defensive Linemen. That is what we have Judon, Suggs, Bowser, Williams, and Smith for. The Ravens Defensive Linemen have one main job: EAT UP THE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN. If they are doing their jobs well, the Linebackers up the middle have clear gaps to make their tackles on running plays, and the linebackers on the outside are outrunning a tackle that either has no help from a guard that is engaged in blocking a DL, or is currently being engaged by that DL. The key stat for the Defensive Line in 2018 will be the rushing yardage. The Ravens historically have used 100 yard rushers as their benchmark for defensive performance. When they are being strong on defense, they aren’t allowing guys to run for over 100 on them. At times, we had a streak of several seasons without allowing a 100 yard rusher. In the past few years, we haven’t been able to claim that mantle, but with a healthy Williams and Pierce, and strong linebackers around them, this team should be able to control the run game to hit figures much closer to that 66 YPG average we saw in the middle of the 2017 season.
As a means of closing out, the final piece to look for in 2018 is again development. But in a different tone, this is looking to see the starters stepping up to either solidify their status, or to take the next step up. This year is a big one for Brent Urban. He was limited by injuries in his first two seasons, found a niche role on Special Teams his 3rd season, looked to be on track to start and shine in 4th season until the injury bug bit again. If he can capitalize and stay healthy, he could earn himself a strong payday, either with the Ravens or elsewhere. If he can’t, he may end up without a contract at all in his 6th season. Michael Pierce, meanwhile, is on the verge of free agency (albeit Restricted Free Agency). As it stands, if he can continue his solid level of play, he should earn a decent contract as a starting lineman. That said, if he can step up his game to be at the level Brandon Williams plays at, he would make this unit much better while also earning himself a much larger payday in the future. Brandon Williams won’t escape mention here as well. While I love everything he brings to the team, his contract is a bit of a bear, and with each restructure, the Ravens kick the can down the road to where his final years will have him earning 14 million dollars per season. While his run stopping ability is insanely impactful to the Ravens defensive fortunes, that is quite a hard number to swallow when his contribution is just in the run game. Williams needs to make sure he can remain healthy, or to find another element in his play, to continue to justify his large contract numbers, though he wouldn’t be a cap casualty for the next few years yet.
If our starters remain healthy, this is a dominant group against the run and a meaningful contributor in helping the pass rush. If they do not, we have to hope the playtime from 2017 was enough to seed the improvements in our depth players to hold the line.