Football has long had a “next man up” philosophy regarding injuries, but the same often holds true for the roster churn of free agency.
After letting outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue leave as unrestricted free agents, the Ravens essentially appointed Tyus Bowser as the next man up, signing him to a new, four-year, $22 million deal to lead the outside linebacker corps.
“I’m happy to be back in the purple and black again,” Bowser said March 22 during a video news conference after he signed his new deal.
The edge rusher group is the most pressing concern on the roster with the loss of Judon and Ngakoue, though the latter did not have the impact in a half-season that the Ravens had hoped after they traded for him. Judon led the Ravens with six sacks this year, while Ngakoue and Jihad Ward, who signed a free agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, had three each for the Ravens.
But Judon, who played last year under the franchise tag, and Ngakoue both commanded prices on the free-agent market that the Ravens appeared to have no interest in chasing. Judon signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the New England Patriots, while Ngakoue agreed to a two-year, $26 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Bowser was retained by general manager Eric DeCosta for less than half that price, which allows the Ravens to also address other roster needs such as the interior offensive line.
Now Bowser and Pernell McPhee, the 11-year veteran who was re-signed to another one-year deal, lead a thin group that features unproven Jaylon Ferguson and practice squad linebacker Aaron Adeoye. The Ravens figure to add further through lower-tier free agents or the draft.
“I’ll definitely be moving to a bigger role, which I feel like I’m ready for,” Bowser said, noting that early in his career he watched and learned from players such as Judon, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith.
The reps were hard to come by at first for Bowser, the Ravens’ second-round pick out of Houston in 2017 who averaged roughly 10 snaps a game in his first two seasons. By Bowser’s third season, Suggs and Smith were gone, and Bowser’s playing time more than doubled. He said he found a new comfort level on the field, which translated into more confidence, more reps, more production.
Bowser recorded a career-high five sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 2019, filling in as a rotational strong-side linebacker behind Judon. This past season, Bowser finished with 34 tackles, a career-high, and two sacks, and his three interceptions were one shy of Marcus Peters’ team lead.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale more than once praised Bowser’s improvement over this past season.
Bowser, who played two years of basketball as well at the University of Houston — and was reveling in the Cougars’ last-minute win against Rutgers to advance to the Sweet 16 — is often asked to drop in coverage, and his one-handed interception at Cleveland this year underscored his athleticism.
Still, Bowser stressed that he wants to be a more complete player, and the Ravens have paid him with that expectation, essentially handing him Judon’s former job as the starting strong-side linebacker. Bowser had sacks in the first two games this past season, but none during the final 14 games.
“I showed that I can drop in coverage, catch the ball, and I was able to get two sacks at the beginning of the year, but after that, I was kind of dry,” he said. “I was able to get to the quarterback, pressures, things like that, but what actually goes in the stat book is getting the quarterback on the ground while he has the ball.”
Once Judon and Ngakoue were signed away, Bowser’s re-signing seemed a more pressing issue for the Ravens, and while he didn’t discuss other potential offers on the open market, Bowser said he wanted to stay in Baltimore all along.
“I thought it was important for me to come back this year,” he said. “Of course, with free agency, you just never know what happens, what direction they want to go or what guys they want to bring in.
“I definitely wanted to stay,” he added, “and … fortunately, we were able to work it out.”
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