In the year of the quarterback, the Ravens not only led the NFL in opposing passer rating (68.8), they also led the AFC in sacks with the 2nd highest total (48) in franchise history. As usual, the Ravens also stopped the run effectively despite injury issues at inside linebacker (ILB).
The Ravens have no defensive level with more potential for change than linebacker. Jarrett Johnson, Brendan Ayanbadejo, and Jameel McClain are free agents, and may not be back. Dannell Ellerbe will fight to win a job. And, of course, the Ravens must consider the future of Ray Lewis in the short or mid-term.
I included Terrell Suggs with the defensive line, since he plays more snaps with a hand on the turf. The Ravens had JJ and Kruger splitting the OLB snaps opposite Suggs. The other linebackers have all lined up primarily as ILBs.
Players who had been with the Ravens linebacker factory for several years were let go. Jason Phillips was released after week 1 of his 3rd NFL season. Tavares Gooden was released at the end of camp ending a disappointing 3-year tour with the Ravens in which he never converted his athleticism to on-field results. Prescott Burgess was signed, released, signed, released, signed, then placed on IR and somehow managed to play 3 games. Edgar Jones and Chavis Williams were active for 9 and 5 games respectively, but their contributions were limited to special teams.
In one of the more intriguing moves of the 2011 preseason, Michael McAdoo, a 6’7” 245 lb. pass rushing end from North Carolina was signed to a 3-year contract, but placed on IR. McAdoo is listed as a DE in the Ravens media guide which may well be where he ends up. What do all of those players have in common? None will get a separate player evaluation.
Each player has 3 grades:
· The 2011 Play grade is a representation of how well he played vs. his positional peers last season. It is not a representation of value relative to salary.
· The 2011 Value grade is a representation of the player’s contribution relative to 2011 salary. Great players, at mid career (after signing their first FA contract), will almost never be graded an A in this category since they are typically paid the market price for their services. It’s not a slap in the face to be graded a C here, but the best front offices will have many more As and Bs than Ds and Fs because they consistently uncover value in the draft and sign bargain free agents. A player who does not miss time due to injury, but otherwise performs exactly as might be expected by his contract would be graded a B-. In the case of linebackers and secondary, this grade includes consideration for their special teams contributions.
· The 2011 Developmental grade is an indication of how much the player improved relative to expectation. The primary reason to expect growth (or decline) is age, but injuries (particularly changes to prospective durability), leadership, position changes, etc. were all lumped in this category. Even a 35-year-old gets a developmental grade.
Snap totals and percentages include only non-penalty snaps which were played competitively (excludes kneels and spikes) for both regular and postseason games. The 2011 Ravens had 1119 such defensive snaps as a unit in 18 games.
Individual Player Comments
2011 Role: Nickel LB (293 snaps, 26%). Brendan, the Ravens best coverage linebacker, was inserted for McClain in most 3rd down situations. Because he stayed healthy and the Ravens so rarely played dime (see above), he had many more snaps than in previous years (2009 99 snaps, 2010 2 snaps)
What was there to like about his season? He made a significant contribution as a pass rusher early in the season including 5 QHs in the first 4 games. The Ravens had a good record of shutting down opposing TEs which reflects well on the coverage of both Lewis and Ayanbadejo.
When did he play best? He started the season with 5 QHs in the first 4 games. At that point he was tied for the team lead and played an important part in the pass rush.
When did he play poorly? Hasslebeck completed all 5 passes targeting his assignment in week 2 at Tennessee.
What was his signature play of 2011? Versus Cincinnati on 11/20, Brendandan was the 7th man into a pile for a fumble that included Referee Ron Winter (Q3, 0:53). Nonetheless, Ayanbadejo not only came up with the football, but pulled it out and posed with it some 20+ yards away as the rest of the players appeared to continue to struggle for the missing ball. The recovery set up a 2-yard TD run by Rice on the next play.
What does he need to do better? Despite being a workout warrior and his recent victory in “The Ravens Strongest Man”, he is not a particularly physical presence in the run game. It’s not realistic to hope that will improve at this point in his career.
Grades: Play B-, Value C, Developmental: B-. Brendan has been a valuable special teams player for many years and did not take a step backwards as a coverage linebacker at 35. That’s beating the typical aging pattern, but he is a free agent and it has been reported he won’t take a discount to return as a Raven.
2011 Role: Rotational ILB (248 snaps, 22%).
What was there to like about his season? Ellerbe came off the bench to provide some snaps when Ray Lewis was injured.
When did he play best? He led the team with 7 tackles in 40 snaps during the week 13 game at Cleveland.
When did he play poorly? He had an awful AFCC vs. the Patriots. Brady completed all 4 passes thrown to his assignments for 70 yards. Dannell also missed a tackle and committed a face mask penalty.
What was his signature play of 2011? He showed speed and athleticism when he raced by the block of Tony Pashos to take down Ogbonnaya for a loss of 1 in the game at Cleveland (Q1, 5:35).
What does he need to do better? Dannell must have some problem with authority, or at least Harbaugh’s authority. He was inactive for 8 of the 16 regular season games. He might do well with a fresh start elsewhere.
Grades: Play D, Value D+, Developmental F. He took a big step backwards in his 3rd season and lost playing time to both McClain and Ayanbadejo despite Pagano’s fondness for the nickel. He’s a restricted free agent and a 2nd round tender would scare off any other team at the cost of some cap space. Given their current roster, it will be interesting to see how the Ravens handle the situation.
2011 Role: Starting OLB who was frequently removed in passing situations (811 snaps, 73%). He had played 99% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2010.
What was there to like about his season? JJ continued to be one of the game’s best edge setters. Per PFF, he was targeted just 17 times in 206 snaps in pass coverage. Johnson thrived with a reduced workload.
When did he play best? He had a superb and memorable game against the Jets with 3 tackles that included a force out of Greene for a loss of 3, 2 QHs, a PD, and a 22-yard touchdown return of Ngata’s sack/FF (Q2, 8:21).
When did he play poorly? He disappeared against Cincinnati in the season finale. In that game he had just 2 assists and committed an unnecessary roughness penalty which set up the Bengals’ first points.
What was his signature play of 2011? His aforementioned FR/TD versus the Jets put the Ravens up 27-7.
What does he need to do better? With a mature player, there is rarely a meaningful improvement goal, but managing decline is about minimizing weaknesses. He’s not an effective pass rusher, but that role was limited under Pagano.
Grades: Play B+, Value B, Developmental B. Johnson did not slide at age 30, which is good. This will be a wild free-agent year. Regardless of the cap expansion, the league-wide dollars available are finite and the teams that spend like crazy don’t tend to be the ones that can put an appropriate value on a player like Jarrett. He’s an unrestricted free agent, but given his success in the Raven’s scheme, I think it’s possible he’ll be resigned to a cap-friendly deal.
2011 Role: Kindle was active for 2 games (Week 4 NYJ, week 14 Ind). He played 2 garbage snaps vs. the Jets and another 11 late snaps against the Colts. All 13 were pass plays and he did not make the defensive scoresheet, nor did he create any meaningful pressure.
What was there to like about his season? If you are looking for a reason to believe Sergio Kindle is still in the Ravens’ plans, the best sign is the fact that the Ravens carried him on the roster all season despite just 2 gameday activations. By comparison, the Ravens released Prescott Burgess twice to make room for special teams players.
Grades: All grades incomplete.
2011 Role: Pass-Rushing OLB/DE (355 snaps, 32%). His playing time increased from 21% of snaps in 2010.
What was there to like about his season? He’s found a role that emphasizes his strengths, developed several new pass-rush moves, and was a key contributor to the Ravens’ 3rd-down success. His outstanding spin move was first on display at St Louis (Q4, 9:28) and he would attempt it approximately once per game the rest of the season. While he remains primarily a pass rusher who likes the outside, he executed many more inside moves in 2011.
When did he play best? Prior to his first sack of the season at Jacksonville (Q2, 12:09), he had 1 sack in 343 career regular season pass plays. In the next 43 pass plays he recorded 4.5 sacks and would apply good pressure for the rest of the season.
When did he play poorly? In week 2, Paul missed a tackle and was on the field for just 13 snaps on which the Titans gained 8.8 YPPA.
What was his signature play of 2011? His sack of Kevin Kolb in week 8 (Q4, 1:07) forced the Cardinals to punt in a tie game. The Ravens immediately drove for the game-winning field goal.
What does he need to do better? In his current down-and-distance role, he would add value if he were effective dropping to coverage to support the zone blitz. If he is to replace JJ (which I don’t see as a reasonable option), he’ll need to learn to set the edge in the running game. He missed 4 tackles in limited duty.
Grades: Play B, Value B+, Developmental B. He took a big step forward in his 3rd season in exactly the area where he was expected to be valuable. A 4th-year player will occasionally surprise by adapting to an as-yet untested role, but that’s not a normal developmental path. If he is to improve from this point, it will be by honing what he does as a pass rush specialist.
2011 Role: Starting ILB (8743 snaps, 78%). He was injured for 4 games (weeks 11-14) with turf toe, but otherwise missed just 4 snaps all season.
What was there to like about his season? As Ray ages, we appreciate more the player he was and the leader he still is, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he is still playing at a very high level. Even with 4 games missed, he led the team in tackles with 115 (95 in the regular season). He remains a solid contributor to the Ravens’ run defense and makes a number of contributions when the opponents are passing.
When did he play best? He helped hold Dustin Keller to 2 receptions for 12 yards in 8 times targeted versus the Jets in Week 4. Keller had 1 reception for 9 yards when Ray rushed Sanchez.
When did he play poorly? He didn’t play exceptionally poorly in any game, but his unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Steelers a first down when the Ravens had just sacked Roethlisberger to set up 2nd and 19 in week 1.
What was his signature play of 2011? He chased down Mewelde Moore to force a fumble 20 yards down the field (Q4, 7:27).
What does he need to do better? Nothing can realistically be expected in terms of an increased level of play or specialized role. To say he must continue conditioning and film study to maintain his current level would frankly be insulting. I don’t know what sort of group film study Ray does, but I would guess it’s not reasonable to expect him to take on a broader leadership role.
Grades: Play A-, Value B, Developmental A-. He continues to defy both his critics and his birth certificate.
2011 Role: Starting 2-down ILB (762 snaps, 68%). Jameel played more snaps in 2011 due to the injury to Lewis as well as the reduced role for Dannell Ellerbe.
What was there to like about his season? He took over the defensive signal calling for 4 straight weeks with Ray Lewis hurt and played every snap.
When did he play best? He played well in Lewis’ absence, particularly in the 49ers and Colts games when he combined for 4 QHs.
When did he play poorly? He played all 78 snaps at Seattle and may have been hurt, but he had difficulty against the run, where he was pushed around and missed 2 tackles on Lynch. In coverage, the Seahawks executed a number of short patterns with good YAC including Lynch’s 23-yard gain with McClain in coverage to set up their first score.
What was his signature play of 2011? Although mobbed, he collected Ed Reed’s strip of Sanchez and ran it in for a TD on the Jets first offensive play in week 4.
What does he need to do better? He lacks the speed to cover effectively, but that is compounded by an inability to find the ball in the air. He could probably generate a little more pass rush if used to blitz occasionally from the outside or even from a 3-point stance. His lone sack of the season came splitting a double from RG Dahl and RT Goldberg in week 3 at St. Louis.
Grades: Play B-, Value B, Developmental C+. McClain is entering his 5th season in 2012 and no great improvements should be expected. He’s a solid role player for this defense, but if he were to go to another team, he would be a candidate for Ed Hartwell syndrome.
2011 Role: Backup ILB (1 start) and occasional 443 OLB (49 total snaps, 4%). With Ellerbe and Lewis hurt in Week 12, McClellan was the starting ILB next to Jameel McClain on Thanksgiving.
What was there to like about his season? He’s a solid special teams player who found a specialist role as a 443 OLB with 1-3 snaps in a number of games.
When did he play best? He was asked to take a bigger role versus the 49ers and played decently in 29 snaps. All 4 of his tackles in that game came on the first drive of the 3rd quarter. He and McClain were the only healthy ILBs and it would have been a hardship to move JJ to ILB and lose his edge-setting skills versus a good running team.
When did he play poorly? He didn’t have any particularly bad outings.
What was his signature play of 2011? With the Steelers attempting to seal the game at Pittsburgh (Q4, 2:54), McClellan slipped off Heath Miller’s block and tackled Isaac Redman for a 3-yard loss on 1st and 10. Just 2 plays later, the Steelers punted to set up the 92-yard game-winning drive.
What does he need to do better? He may have neither the speed nor other skills for such a role, but if he could play nickel LB, the spot may be open entering 2012. If he is to play beyond 4 NFL seasons, it will likely be as a quality special teams player who can play defensively at somewhat above the replacement level.
Grades: Play B-, Value B+, Developmental C+. He played well for a rookie linebacker in limited action. It’s a good sign that he got (and held) the 443 outside role, because there were other options (the incumbent Burgess, Ayanbadejo, or Ellerbe). The coaches must have seen something they liked. He had 13 tackles and was not penalized on special teams.