Looking Ahead to the 2017 Defense

Filmstudy Looking Ahead to the 2017 Defense

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It was a lifeless finale as many expected.

I don’t think there is a lot worthy of discussion or representative of the team’s 2017 prospects.

However, several players got a chance in this game:

Patrick Onwuasor: He got his first NFL start, but the Bengals were not a good fit for him as an opponent. The Ravens played nickel on all but 1 play of the first 6 drives. With the nickel on run downs, a defense including Onwuasor was too small to defend the run and the Ravens quickly switched to McClellan on the Bengals’ second drive. Patrick played obvious passing downs thereafter (switching with McClellan) through the 2nd drive of the third quarter. After that, he got more playing time when McClellan changed roles and Mosley was hurt. He was credited with 6 tackles (all assists) in the Gamebook, but that does not match play-by-play notations (where he is listed for 2 primaries). Onwuasor is listed at 217 lbs on the roster. That’s undersized and his usage indicates Pees understood that was an impediment against a bigger offensive team like Cincinnati.

Albert McClellan: He was used in a variety of roles. He did not start, but replaced Onwuasor as a 2-down ILB for the 2nd drive. Later, he was called into duty at OLB when the Ravens went to the standard (4 DB) defense in the 2nd half. When Mosley was hurt, he moved back to ILB and I believe he was the defensive signal caller for those plays. Albert played 58% of the defensive snaps for the season. While I don’t like the way he’s been used on 3rd down this season, I love his versatility and special teams impact. He’s signed through 2018 and his 2017 roster spot is in no jeopardy.

Chris Lewis-Harris: Shareece Wright left the game for the last 10 meaningful snaps of the first half.  During that time, the Ravens surrendered pass plays of 19, 12, 31, and 13 yards. Lewis-Harris an unrestricted free agent, and I don’t expect him back.

Year-End Defensive Assesment

Rather than further review a game none of us want to think about, I’d like to take stock of the talent the Ravens have on defense. I like to categorize value relative to cap to sort players into 5 broad categories. I last did this at the bye and a few players have switched categories since then, most notably the graduating class of 4th-year players who are now UFAs.

Here is my assessment of the 2016 season-end Ravens defensive roster, including all players on IR.

Key contributors on rookie deals: Timmy Jernigan, C.J. Mosley, Zach Orr, Michael Pierce, Tavon Young

These 5 players, along with Weddle and Smith, are the playmaking core of the 2017 defense. Jernigan took a step back in the 2nd half. If Pees’ comments are to be believed, he will play better with an improved supporting cast so opposing defenses can’t focus on him. Michael Pierce will have a workhorse role if Brandon Williams is not resigned. Tavon Young has the highest ceiling of the group and the Ravens would do well to find another outside corner who will allow Tavon to play a hybrid SCB/LCB role.

As usual, a defensive playmaker of some sort is needed in the draft and the pass rush is what let the team down in the stretch.

Additions since bye: None

Departures: Brandon Williams (UFA). This means he’s departing this group, since he’ll have a lucrative free agent contract or franchise tag if he returns.

Developmental (all young players we hope will quickly emerge in the above category):  Kamalei Correa, Carl Davis, Willie Henry, Matt Judon, Bronson Kaufusi, Sheldon Price, Za’Darius Smith, Brent Urban

Za’Darius Smith is solidly in the developmental category after a disappointing season where he played just 44 snaps in the last 6 weeks (3 deactivations) despite being healthy. In stark contrast to the offense, the rest of this list is made up with players with solid prospects to become key contributors.

Sheldon Price appears to have the upper hand over Maurice Canady on a backup outside corner role for 2016. Carl Davis, Willie Henry, Bronson Kaufusi, and Brent Urban may all compete for snaps lost if Brandon Williams and/or Lawrence Guy do not return. Ideally, from Correa, Kaufusi, Judon, and Smith, the Ravens will develop a minimum of one quality 2-down run defender, a quality pass rusher, and a third player who can complement the pass rush from the inside.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in this group is the lack of a young safety who might become a starter. The Ravens need to use a draft pick at safety to go along with whatever plans they have to patch the back end.

Additions since bye: None

Departures: Will Davis

Core veterans (all paid well, but contributing appropriate to cap): Albert McClellan, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle

There are only 3 players left in this category at season’s end, but it’s quite possible Guy or Anthony Levine can be resigned. Both Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb are capable of playing at the level of their 2017 earnings, but it’s not a sure thing in either case, so I’ve placed them in the next category.

Additions since bye: None

Departures: Lawrence Guy, Anthony Levine.

Veteran cap value concerns: Kyle Arrington, Elvis Dumervil, Kendrick Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Shareece Wright

Arrington, Dumervil, and Lewis have played their last downs as Ravens and the Ravens will save a total of $9.9M versus the cap by releasing them. Suggs says he’s coming back and the limited cap savings make that reasonable from the team’s perspective. Lardarius Webb played well in the second half. If the Ravens don’t retain him, he will play somewhere in 2017. Wright is paid like a starter and was not up to it in 2016. I don’t think he’ll be back, because the Ravens can save $2.7M against the 2017 cap by cutting him. He’ll be on some roster in 2017, probably as a 4th corner.

At the end of a season, it’s actually better to have a few such players, because they provide the space for other transactions.

Transitional (role players, whose spots will always be in jeopardy): Brennen Beyer, Maurice Canady, Marqueston Huff, Lamar Louis, Cavellis Luckett, Patrick Onwuasor, Jumal Rolle.

Of this group, I’d say Canady and Rolle have the best chances to return from IR and win a spot.

UFAs (If resigned, these players would all be core veterans initially): Matt Elam, Lawrence Guy, Chris Lewis-Harris, Jerraud Powers, Brandon Williams

Thanks to Brian McFarland for cap information contained in this piece.

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Ken McKusick

About Ken McKusick

Known as “Filmstudy” from his handle on area message boards, Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports. He grew up within walking distance of Memorial Stadium and attended all but a handful of Orioles games from 1979 through 2001. He got his start in sports modeling with baseball in the mid 1980’s. He began writing about the Ravens in 2006 and maintains a library of video for every game the team has played. He’s a graduate of Syracuse with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Math who recently retired from his actuarial career to pursue his passion as a football analyst full time.

If you have math or modeling questions related to sports or gambling, Ken is always interested in hearing new problems or ideas.

He can be reached by email at filmstudy21@verizon.net or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens.

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