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Will the Real Ferguson Please Stand Up? Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Street Talk Will the Real Ferguson Please Stand Up?

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Unsolved Mysteries

The Baltimore Ravens selected defensive end Jaylon Ferguson from Louisiana Tech in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. At the time of the selection, it seemed like Ferguson would be a natural plug-and-play fit for the defense. His game and physical traits mirrored current and past Ravens like Pernell McPhee and Za’Darius Smith: heavy hands; ability to rush inside; ability to overpower linemen in the run and pass game. 

As RSR analyst and draft expert James Ogden described: “As a pass rusher, he was able to effectively close on the QB – something you can see simply from his statistics, breaking Terrell Suggs’ all-time sack record for NCAA Division I. He was a disciplined run defender, but he too frequently relied on his superior power and not his superior technique – he failed to bring leverage into his play and consistent pursuit from the backside as often as he could have. His best feature against the run was his textbook technique when optioned, staying disciplined with his eyes on the mesh point before crashing down quickly to make a play near the line of scrimmage.”

Post draft, Ferguson’s role in the defense has still been a work in progress. 2019 provided a promising glimpse into his potential, and as a rookie, he responded well when his number was called. For example, the 2019 game against Houston stands out the most, as he recorded a sack, a tackle for a loss, and had a clear impact in that game. You could see those physical traits on display. 

2020 was supposed to be another step forward for Ferguson in Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. Instead, he only played a total of 301 snaps and was inactive for two playoff games. 

With the Ravens drafting two outside linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft who could eat into his snaps — Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes — where does the former third-round pick stand in the pecking order? 

Ogden, fellow RSR analyst Dev Panchwagh, and RSR contributor Michael Crawford take a closer look at Ferguson’s usage and film from 2020 to uncover some answers, and they also look ahead at what his role might look like in 2021. (Special thank you to @Yoshi2052 on Twitter for his snap participation data.)

Anatomy of Ferguson’s 2020 Snap Count 

Ferguson played 28.26% of defensive snaps in 2020. That number was down from the 2019 season, when he played 51.70% of defensive snaps. He played in the same number of regular season games in both seasons (14), but was inactive for the two playoff games in 2020. He did play in the 2019 Divisional Round game against the Titans.

A few things to keep in mind about the decreased snaps for Ferguson in 2020.

In 2019, McPhee was injured in Week 7 against the Seahawks and missed the remainder of the season. Prior to his injury, McPhee averaged 67% of defensive snaps while Ferguson averaged 39%. After McPhee’s injury, Ferguson averaged 67% of defensive snaps and Jihad Ward, who played his first game for the Ravens in Week 6 against the Bengals, averaged 53% of defensive snaps.

In 2020, those percentages changed for a couple of reasons. McPhee played in 14 of 17 games (including playoffs), only missing the Week 12 game against the Steelers due to COVID. The Ravens traded for Yannick Ngakoue on October 22, 2020. He played his first game as a Raven in Week 8 against the Steelers. Here are the average defensive snap percentages for McPhee, Ferguson and Ward before and after the Ngakoue trade:

Ferguson was inactive for Weeks 14 (Browns) & 15 (Giants), as well as the playoff games against the Titans and Bills. Ward was inactive for the first four games after the Ngakoue trade (weeks 8-10) and also missed Week 12 due to COVID.

Q: Why did Ferguson take a step back in 2020? 

Mike: In my opinion, there were two primary reasons: McPhee was healthy in 2020 and the Ravens traded for Ngakoue. The snap participation data shows that when McPhee was healthy, whether that was in 2019 or 2020, Ferguson averaged around 35% of defensive snaps. After McPhee was injured in Week 7 of 2019, that left Matt Judon, Tyus Bowser, Ferguson and Ward to divvy up snaps. In 2020, with McPhee back from injury and the mid-season trade for Ngakoue, snaps had to be divided amongst six players (Judon, McPhee, Bowser, Ferguson, Ward & Ngakoue) instead of four.

You also have to consider how each player was deployed situationally, and how that changed from 2019 to 2020 with McPhee back and the addition of a pass rusher like Ngakoue.

If you only look at Ferguson’s defensive snap count, you’d say there’s a big difference between 533 (2019) and 301 (2020) but the snap percentage didn’t change significantly. That said, I think his situational usage did change some in 2020, which isn’t surprising considering the presence of McPhee (a very good run defender) and Ngakoue (a good pass rusher).

Dev: I thought Ravens Outside Linebackers coach Drew Wilkins’ recent comments about Ferguson having a better grasp of the playbook in the first round of OTAs were telling. Head coach John Harbaugh in particular places a tremendous amount of weight on knowing the playbook and practicing well. 

Now, we don’t exactly know if Ferguson practiced well or poorly. But if it’s taken him some time to get the playbook down, you could see why the coaches may have leaned in the direction of the veterans instead, especially this past postseason. 

Jaylon Ferguson & Marcus Peters make a tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers

Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Q: What stood out to you about Ferguson as a prospect coming out of college? 

James: Ferguson’s upfield burst was very good, especially on obvious passing downs; his second and third step in particular impressed me. He played pretty fast in general, with good football intelligence and pre-snap reads. His discipline and mental processing were a feature of his game consistently against all competition. 

As a pass rusher, he followed up his burst with excellent cornering. The headline people remember with Ferguson was his historically bad combine numbers in the short shuttle and three-cone. While I always thought he had average ankle flexion, I also felt like I’d seen plenty of evidence on tape to suggest that he would be well set up to corner at the next level. Some of the pad level and leverage concerns others had, I felt were technique and consistency issues rather than something he couldn’t do, despite the numbers. 

Other than that, he was pretty average athletically for defensive ends, apart from his vine-like arms, but his measurements do stack up well when you consider his relative size when he entered the league. 

Q: Based on what you’ve seen of Ferguson’s 2020 film, what did he do well and what does he need to improve on in 2021? 

Mike: What I saw from Ferguson in the 2020 season and what I think you can project going forward comes down to three things:

  1. Confidence
  2. Experience
  3. Technique/Fundamentals

When Ferguson has been at his best, whether that was in 2020 or his rookie season in 2019, he was playing with confidence. You see plays where he shows no hesitation, understands exactly what he’s seeing and knows what he’s supposed to do. When he hasn’t played as well, you see the opposite — indecision, mistrust in what he’s seeing, and uncertainty about his assignment. 

When he reads his keys, trusts what he sees, and uses the correct technique for the situation, Ferguson has shown he can make plays. 

Dev: I agree with Mike’s assessment. Lack of consistency in reading his keys and not using proper technique (especially in the run game) were visible shortcomings in the games I charted.

For instance, against the Colts and the Patriots last season, I thought he struggled at times to maintain his gap integrity and his eye discipline when playing the run. He gets caught in the wash at times chasing a play down the line when he should have stayed with his assignment. 

However, what Ferguson does well is play with high effort. In that same game against the Patriots, he chased running back Damien Harris from behind in the open field on a 20-yard run. He consistently runs to the ball and plays through the whistle. 

In another scenario against Big Ben and the Steelers in the second matchup against Pittsburgh, Ferguson rushed the RT, looked to be stymied, but he continued to work off the block, wheeled off, hit Ben as he threw the ball, and influenced a first quarter red zone interception from Tyus Bowser

Q: As a pass rusher, it also seems like Ferguson’s dominance at the collegiate level (as a power rusher who won with an unstoppable bull rush) has not shown up the same way in the NFL. How can Ferguson improve? 

James: Ferguson wasn’t the most athletic of rushers coming out of Conference USA and into the NFL, but he never actually unlocked his potential as a power rusher as fully as he could have in college. This means the Ravens might have needed to rebuild him as a pass rusher for the next level and develop his pass rush plan, which was limited at Louisiana Tech.

For the Ravens, the areas for development would certainly be adding to his repertoire of pass rush moves – developing some effective secondary offerings to go with his power moves. He did develop a speed rip, but this worked against a lower level of competition and does not seem the ideal change-up move given his skillset at the next level relative to other players. 

Dev: Ferguson relies too much on his power (through a bull rush) to win against opposing offensive tackles. He’ll go to a straight-ahead rush to jolt OTs backwards. But when that doesn’t work, and he gets stunted by OTs who maintain their ground, you don’t see a secondary counter move from him. He’ll keep working and driving but has a tough time disengaging the block. 

There are also times when he’s a step slow off the snap. You see guys like Bowser and Ngakoue getting an instant jump and winning on a speed rush. That’s obviously not Ferguson’s main strength, but even with his power style, he needs to have some type of change-up in that first step to knock OTs off balance. He tends to take that same path way too many times and needs to set up his opponents more often to improve his win rate. 

Q: What should we expect from Ferguson in 2021? Is he a classic breakout candidate for them, following in the footsteps of players like Bowser or Za’Darius Smith? Or will he be lost in the shuffle behind newcomers Oweh and Hayes? 

Mike: Can you project that a player will be more confident? I’m not sure about that but as a player gains the following:

  1. More knowledge — of his team’s playbook or what an opponent likes to do on offense (as just two examples); 
  2. More experience — which can take many forms, such as knowing what it takes to be physically, mentally & emotionally prepared to play a game;
  3. More results — making plays in practice and in games,

that player will also gain more confidence. Success doesn’t happen by mistake and there are a variety of factors that go into it. Some of those factors, like physical and mental preparation, are within a player’s control. While others, like injury, coaching decisions or a teammate’s actions, are not.

If it all comes together, I expect Ferguson to take his game to another level this season.

Dev: There is a natural opportunity for Ferguson to play more of those inside, on-the-line snaps that Ward vacated when he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s where I can see Ferguson fitting in and providing instant value while enabling the coaches to rotate Oweh and Hayes at both OLB spots along with McPhee and Bowser. 

Ferguson has experience playing snaps on the inside in more of a traditional defensive tackle role going back to his time at Louisiana Tech. If he can find his niche with more hand-in-the-dirt rush opportunities, I can see him still having a chance to play well with a resurgence. The reality is Ferguson does not look comfortable playing in space and that’s really not maximizing his strengths. 

When you watch Ferguson play, he’s had some dominant snaps in 2019 and 2020 where he’s wrecked blocks, especially in the run game when he attacks with proper pad level. That’s where Ferguson still displays some exciting traits, and his raw power and physicality all show up. 

To echo James’ and Mike’s points about technique, consistency, and refinement, if he can play with better discipline and less hesitancy, there is still enough upside for him to impose his power game on opposing blockers while adding in a layer of pass-rush nuance and better run game recognition. 

Generally speaking, the action on the field starts to slow down for players entering their third year. They don’t get bogged down as often with the processing aspect and start to instinctively react to the alignments/plays they see. Play-calling patterns start to become easier to spot and predict. 

When you watch Ferguson, it’s clear he still gets bogged down by the speed of the game and that holds him back from more of a “takeover” mentality and presence. 

If the early returns on OTAs are any indication, Ferguson is already on the right path for a better season ahead. 

“The thing I’m most excited about with Jaylon is how he’s in such great shape right now, and he really has a grasp of the playbook that he hasn’t had the last two years,” [Ravens OLB coach] Wilkins said. “Every year, he’s getting sharper and sharper with it, to the point now where he really is telling the young guys what to do, which is exciting to see. He’s running to the football, he’s playing with great effort. He’s really checking all the boxes right now for us.”

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For some additional insight from Michael Crawford & friends on Jaylon Ferguson, CLICK HERE.

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