The recent news out of the Baltimore Ravens facility is that defensive lineman Michael Pierce was pulled out of practice due to poor conditioning The fact that he is out of shape is concerning in a contract year after he signed his restricted free agent tender. This puts more pressure on the entire defensive line to step up in 2019.
Other than veteran nose tackle Brandon Williams, Baltimore also drafted Daylon Mack in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Chris Wormley, who I highlighted as a potential breakout candidate in 2019, is also competing for a starting 3-4 defensive end role along with Willie Henry. Former 7th round draft pick from last year Zach Sieler, undrafted free agent Gerald Willis III and fullback/defensive lineman Patrick Ricard all could make their case to make the 53 man roster.
Can Brandon Williams become the leader on the DL after several veteran departures?
Even though his play does not show up on the stat sheet, 30-year-old Brandon Williams does not get talked about enough when describing the Baltimore Ravens defense. With a few veterans now gone, Williams will have to take a leadership role with his work ethic and play on the field. The former Missouri 3rd round pick has been a rock in the interior of their defensive line, acting as a stalwart against the run. His importance is proven by how much the Ravens run defense suffers when he’s missed time. In his six years with Baltimore, he has a career total of 228 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 25 tackles for loss. He signed a 5-year contract back in 2017, making him an important piece of the puzzle every year. Williams has the nose position locked down, but he’ll need to maintain his health and top level of play to make life easier for his fellow linemates.
Will Michael Pierce continue his growth or will he be replaced?
Everyone knows Pierce is a big interior run stopper but not practicing due to being overweight makes this season incredibly important for him if he wants a new contract with the Ravens. He was an undrafted gem out of Samford in 2016 but he will need to improve his conditioning if he wants to continue his play as a starter on the defensive line. Pierce has 116 combined tackles, 3 career sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss in his 3 years with Baltimore. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he was the highest graded player for the Baltimore Ravens last year. The duo of Pierce and Williams made the Ravens run defense formidable too, ranked 4th in the NFL in 2018.
If the Ravens do not re-sign Pierce, recent 5th round selection Daylon Mack could replace him. The former Texas A&M defensive tackle was more of a depth pick but he could see some snaps if Pierce cannot repeat his success from previous seasons. Mack had 108 total tackles, 27 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks in his 4 years as an Aggie. Even though he is only a rookie, Mack could put some pressure on Michael Pierce. Mack maintained a similar, run-stopping role in Texas A&M, against top SEC competition. Pierce will need to get in shape, fast.
Who will be the primary pass rusher at 3-4 defensive end?
Both former Michigan defensive lineman Chris Wormley and Willie Henry look to compete for the jobs as 3-4 defensive ends. Wormley started a few games but did not have too much production last year while Henry has shown flashes but has not been able to stay healthy. Henry has a better stat total overall (with 35 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 12 quarterback hits the last two years) compared to Wormley, so he may have an edge. However, they both can play a role in rushing the passer from the interior. Ideally, Baltimore will hope Henry can stay healthy, and use Wormley in shorter spurts to guide his growth. If used in a rotation, both players could play a role instead of one player dominating the snaps.
Which players will make up the DL depth for the Baltimore Ravens?
The Ravens drafted Zach Sieler in the 7th round last year. He only played in two games his rookie year and could look to play a bigger role in their defensive line rotation. With his length, the former Ferris State defensive end could be compared to former Raven Brent Urban, who held a valuable role as a consistent depth piece. The fullback/defensive lineman Patrick Ricard is still a versatile depth option, as he takes snaps on both sides of the ball. Last year, the former Maine defensive lineman started two games and has 9 career total tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit in two years as a Raven.
Behind them, there’s one player that could make the team as an undrafted free agent: Gerald Willis III. Many were surprised the Miami (FL.) defensive lineman went undrafted considering his physical stature and performance on the field. A second-team AP All-American selection and contributor to a fiery Hurricanes defense, Willis has red flags in his past, but to go undrafted was still puzzling. Willis can use that disappointment from draft weekend to fuel a rise in the pros and stick to the roster. He does have the potential to contribute much more than his current backup role may suggest.
In essence, the DL has pieces in place, but someone must elevate their game.
Veteran Brandon Williams leads the way, with a handful of young, promising talents behind him. Thankfully, with a decent corps of linebackers behind them, the front seven as a whole can repeat their level of play in 2019. Add in a talented secondary, and the Baltimore Ravens have a chance to overcome many offseason changes to earn a playoff berth.
Andrew Kim is a writer for PFN covering the Baltimore Ravens. You can follow him @AndrewKimPFN on Twitter.