The Ravens opted to let top edge rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue walk as free agents this year, then re-signed outside linebacker Tyus Bowser at a fraction of the cost of the other two. Now the Ravens are hoping Bowser, 26, can become a leader of a young edge rushing group that remains the team’s largest question mark entering the 2021 season.
Judon earned a four-year, $56 million deal from the New England Patriots, with $30 million guaranteed, while Ngakoue, coming off a disappointing half-season in Baltimore after a midseason trade, signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Ravens didn’t appear to show much interest in throwing big money at either of them, and instead re-signed Bowser, 26, to a four-year, $22 million deal ($12 million guaranteed) that adheres to the Ravens’ long-held “right player, right price” philosophy.
To be sure, Bowser hasn’t produced the sack numbers of Judon and Ngakoue that tend to drive the market for edge rushers. Judon had 34.5 sacks and 103 quarterback hits with the Ravens in five years, while Ngakoue has totaled 45.5 sacks and 96 quarterback hits in that same span.
Bowser, meanwhile, has totaled just 10.5 sacks and 29 quarterback hits in four seasons. Now entering his fifth NFL season, will Bowser develop into an elite pass rusher on a discount deal, or did the Ravens pay for him to be exactly what he has been — an edge-setting, rush and coverage linebacker?
“Tyus carries so much value for us because he’s so versatile in everything he does,” outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins said earlier this spring. “He’s become a really dominant edge setter in the run game, which is always step No. 1 for our guys.”
Bowser played two years of college basketball at Houston, and that athleticism has helped him to develop what Wilkins has called “elite” ball skills. Bowser flashed that with his marvelous one-handed interception at Cleveland — one of his three interceptions last season — and Wilkins said Bowser can disrupt the passing game in other ways as well.
“He takes away the open underneath routes, or the guy going to the flat,” Wilkins said. “Now that quarterback has to hold the ball for an extra second, and you see the production that comes from that. He’s also a really dynamic and dangerous pass rusher for us that can really move across the front.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Bowser played 155 coverage snaps last season, the most of any outside linebacker, and quarterbacks had a 42.2 rating passing against him last season.
But Bowser has said he wants to be viewed as more than just a coverage linebacker. He recorded a sack in each of the Ravens’ first two games last year but lamented the fact that he had none after that. He finished the season with a career-high 34 tackles and 14 quarterback hits, playing 51 percent of defensive snaps, the largest workload of his career.
“I was able to get to the quarterback, pressures, things like that,” Bowser said earlier this spring, “but what actually goes in the stat book is getting the quarterback on the ground while he has the ball. … It’s just as simple as that. Get to the quarterback and sack him.”
The Ravens finished last year with 39 sacks, which ranked 14th in the league, but no edge rusher on this year’s team totaled more than three sacks a year ago. Judon had six, and the returning sack leader is defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who totaled four, with three of those coming in one game at Philadelphia.
Defensive coordindator Don “Wink” Martindale thrives on multiple blitz packages and unpredictability and likes to bring pressure from a variety of sources. But don’t expect him to get worked up about sack totals.
On a conference call with season-ticket holders earlier this spring, Martindale said sacks are “one of the most superficial rankings,” noting that quality coverage is probably more valuable than pressure. Head coach John Harbaugh has echoed that, noting that quarterbacks increasingly are getting the ball out quicker. In Bowser, the Ravens see someone who can do both bring pressure and cover.
And now with Judon, Ngakoue and Jihad Ward all gone, Bowser, a former second-round pick, becomes one of the elder statesmen in a largely unproven outside linebackers group that includes third-year linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and rookies Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes.
“One of my main focuses this offseason … is just being more of a vocal leader,” Bowser said after one minicamp workout. “I just want to be that vocal leader to teach these guys the ropes, teach these guys the playbook and put them in the right position, because we’re going to need each and every one of them.”
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