Whenever the Ravens do finally get on the field together for training camp, the coaching staff will finally get a look at this year’s rookie class, and in the words of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, “We’ll find out who’s All-Zoom team and who can actually play football.”
One thing the Ravens are banking on is that first-round draft pick Patrick Queen not only can play, but can step right into a starting job as a three-down middle linebacker. It’s a big ask, especially for a rookie coming off a pandemic-altered spring practice period held entirely via virtual meetings, but Martindale and head coach John Harbaugh have no qualms about plugging the LSU rookie into the heart of the Ravens’ defense.
“Let him use his speed and instincts to run around and make plays in all three phases,” Harbaugh said on a conference call with season-ticket holders last month, saying he expects Queen to “be a three-down guy both in our base package and our sub package.”
From the minute the Ravens made him the No. 28 overall pick, Queen figured to become a Week 1 starter, just as first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley had done in 2014. That year, though, Mosley learned the system as the weak-side linebacker playing alongside veteran Daryl Smith, who held the ‘mike’ or middle linebacker spot.
This year, the Ravens don’t have a Smith or Mosley to be the veteran tutor shepherding Queen into the role. L.J. Fort returns after a solid first season with the Ravens, and beyond that, the Ravens’ inside linebacker corps consists of unproven young players such as Otaro Alaka, Chris Board and rookie third-round pick Malik Harrison.
Martindale, who met with reporters via teleconference last week, acknowledged that the lack of practice time this spring is particularly problematic for rookies, but he said of Queen, “I know in just speaking with him and being in meetings with him, I think this kid can handle it. We’re lucky we drafted a smart, driven player.”
Queen has a few things strongly working in his favor as he steps into a plug-and-play role in the heart of the Ravens’ defense. First, it’s deep at every other level. The Ravens enhanced the group in front of him by adding veteran defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, and they also boast perhaps the most talented secondary in the league led by Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, veteran Jimmy Smith and emerging star Chuck Clark.
Harbaugh said that Clark will probably remain in the “green-dot” role — wearing the headset helmet and serving as the chief communicator between the defense on the field and the coaching staff. Harbaugh said he prefers to have a linebacker handle that assignment, and it might become Queen’s job before too long, but for the time being he can defer to the very capable Clark — “He’s bold, he’s brilliant and he’s brief,” Harbaugh said.
In addition, while the linebackers room doesn’t boast much experience, a couple of high-character former Ravens inside linebackers — Jameel McClain and Zach Orr — still work in the organization and can offer good perspective to the rookie.
To be sure, it has been a most uncertain and unsettled offseason, but the Ravens feel that Queen is in as good position as possible for immediate success, and the Ravens are counting on it.
“Will it be perfect?” Martindale continued. “No, but we don’t expect that coming out as a rookie. The thing of it is, he doesn’t repeat errors. … It’s just like I told him: If you are going to make a mistake, make it a 100-miles-an-hour mistake. We can live with that.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of LSU Athletics