Inside the Selection of Jaylon Ferguson: How the Louisiana Tech Star Mirrors Baltimore Rushers from the Past
The losses of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith left the Ravens with a net decrease of 15.5 sacks and a bevy of pressures from 2018 that they’ll need to replace. That’s the surface-level view just based on production. However, from a pass-rush scheme standpoint, their losses left an even bigger hole. Suggs and Smith were the inside/outside propellers who could really elevate Don “Wink” Martindale’s stunt and twist rush games. It was as if the Ravens DC was handed a no deposit bonus for his next wager.
Both Suggs and Smith play with the proper power and pad level, and incorporate the rush moves you need to go from outside to inside, and vice versa. This was a big factor for the front rush being more dynamic and unpredictable since perhaps the 2014 season.
In that 2014 season, Pernell McPhee was the X-Factor who could rush inside and allow Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to stay on the field together in sub rush packages. When you have at least two players – that season it was Suggs and McPhee – who can stand up and move around the line, the defensive coordinator not only has more disguise options, he also has clear mismatch opportunities to exploit.
Think about it: Would you want to be an offensive coordinator worrying about your left or right guard going up against McPhee? What if you had to slide the inside protection his way while still accounting for the outside rush? That’s an advantage for McPhee every time.
Fast forward to 2019. The Ravens took a big step in replacing the pass-rush versatility of Suggs and Smith with the selection of Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson with one of their third-round picks on Friday.
Ferguson is in the mold of his Baltimore predecessors. Like McPhee, he has “heavy” hands and can strike through a lineman’s grip. He has the same size and dimensions as Smith – both players are roughly the same height (6’5”) and roughly the same weight (270 pounds). And like Suggs, Ferguson converts speed to power as well as any rusher in this class.
What does it mean to convert “speed to power?” We see scouts throw that phrase around a lot. Converting speed to power means a defensive player doesn’t have to use a speed rush to maneuver past the offensive tackle. Instead, they turn that speed into a bull rush, strike the tackle in the chest area, throw him off balance, and drive the lineman backwards.
Just to illustrate, some of the best “speed to power” guys have been Dwight Freeney, Justin Houston, and DeMarcus Ware, as seen above) Suggs started his career as a quick first step guy who would get around the tackle. As his game evolved, he learned the nuances of converting speed to power, and he became even more deadly.
Ferguson has that same potential. When you combine his “speed to power” ability with his heavy hands (see below for an example of “heavy hands” – watch the 49ers interior rusher push his man back into the pocket) and refined rush moves, you get a pass rusher who is operating at an advanced graduate level coming into the NFL. The reality is a lot of college rushers don’t have those moves at the start of their careers. Usually understanding the mechanics of hand usage doesn’t click until two to three years later, if it ever happens at all.
According to the NFL Draft Network, hand usage is “where [Ferguson] makes his money.” As outlined in their scouting reports, he has an array of moves, although he does need to improve his counter moves. Getting back to the idea of moving Ferguson around to rush from an inside (DT) position in 4-3 nickel and dime looks, he has the size and power to be that guy.
According to Jon Ledyard’s analysis from NFL Draft Network: “Doesn’t get reps inside at Louisiana Tech, but I could see the NFL kicking him inside and letting him rush the passer over a guard on long/late downs.”
You better believe Martindale is keenly aware of his potential to rush from an inside position to be a weapon for his stunts and twists.
Coming into the draft, Ferguson was categorized as a 4-3 DE. He currently weighs in in the 270-pound range, similar to Smith and McPhee, and to a lesser extent, Matt Judon. Like Judon, Ferguson is projected as a pure 4-3 DE because he doesn’t have the athleticism to stand up and drop into coverage.
However, Judon has really adapted well to the 3-4 outside linebacker position, and he’s had some shining moments when he’s had to play in the open field. The Ravens will need the same type of transformation from Ferguson.
The good news is Ferguson had plenty of stand-up opportunities in college. The bad news: he doesn’t have the athleticism or the instincts you’d really want from a traditional hybrid OLB. If Judon’s development is any indication, this part of Ferguson’s game can evolve.
In the meantime, it makes sense for the coaches to work Ferguson in slowly on early downs (1st and 2nd down) when the OLBs have more coverage responsibilities. What you have to love about Ferguson as an early-down defender – and this is also a shared trait with former Baltimore OLBs – is his ability to play the run. He can scrape, he understands how to set the edge. And he is physical at the point when taking on blockers.
Ultimately, though, Ferguson’s impact will be measured by his pass-rush production. We know he had that in spades, shattering Suggs’ all-time FBS sack record with 45 sacks. That counts for something.
If you look at Ferguson’s game, he really is the perfect fit in this defense. He won’t wow you with an electric first step and the flexibility to “bend” to get underneath tackles’ hands. That’s not his game. He is not Von Miller.
However, he brings plenty to the table and can be a unique chess piece for Martindale to pair with Judon, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams. Filling in the shoes of Suggs and Smith won’t be easy, but he’ll offer a familiar game, and he should have an opportunity to play right away for a defense in need of his “special set of skills.”