But the Ravens also feel the need to upgrade at pass-rusher because of their own quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
"If our offense continues to play at the level they played at this past year, we will probably be ahead in some games and we’re going to want to have a strong pass rush,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the NFL combine.
Whether it was throwing another touchdown pass or faking out a defender to reach the end zone, Jackson helped Baltimore outscore opponents by a league-best 130 points in the first half. During the Ravens’ regular-season-ending 12-game win streak, their average advantage heading into the fourth quarter was 14 points.
Ravens opponents regularly were forced to go into catch-up mode and rely on the pass, which makes it even more important for Baltimore to ramp up its pressure on the edge as well as the interior. It’s a model that the Indianapolis Colts successfully used when Peyton Manning lit up the scoreboard, allowing Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to tee off on quarterbacks. Last season, teams threw the ball 63% in the second half against the Ravens but Baltimore recorded an NFL-low 13 sacks after halftime.
The challenge for DeCosta and the Ravens is to boost the pass rush with limited salary-cap space and a late first-round pick. Baltimore is expected to place the franchise tag on linebacker Matthew Judon, which will take up over half of its available $30 million cap room. The Ravens won’t be able to afford one of the top pass-rushers like Jadeveon Clowney but they could land a more reasonably priced player like Jason Pierre-Paul or Calais Campbell (if he’s cut by the Jaguars). Another option is a tag-and-trade with Judon -- perhaps send him to the Jaguars for Yannick Ngakoue (DeCosta and Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell are friends).
The draft is not stocked with top-tier pass-rushers. The Ravens need to have their fingers crossed for Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa or Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos to fall to them at the No. 28 overall pick.
“Even though you have [Ohio State’s] Chase Young at the top and you got a couple of really good interior defensive linemen, the defensive end group kind of drops off after the first three or four,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “After Matos [and Epenesa], it’s a little bit of dip and I think you’re probably looking later in the second round before you can get an end that you’re excited about.”
Epenesa looks like a prospect that the Ravens would target. He has the versatility to line up inside or on the edge and plays with a high motor. Epenesa produced 26.5 sacks (including 11.5 last season) and eight forced fumbles as a three-year starter at Iowa, where the Ravens have close ties with coach Kirk Ferentz (a former Ravens assistant from 1996 to 1998).
What could work in Baltimore’s favor is Epenesa’s rough performance at the combine. He didn’t show much power or explosiveness with a 5.04 40-yard dash, 17 bench press reps and 32.5-inch vertical jump.
This could be similar to 2003, when Terrell Suggs’ poor combine caused him to drop to the Ravens at No. 10 overall. This is also the last time Baltimore selected a pass-rusher in the first round.
“[Epenesa] didn’t have a great workout at the combine, and I kind of knew that going in,” McShay said. "He’s a better football player than tested. He’s really good with his hands, strong and physical. He reminds me a little bit of [Lions defensive end] Trey Flowers.”
Baltimore failed to generate a consistent pass rush outside of Judon. His 46 quarterback pressures were 30 more than any other Ravens player, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In order to get to quarterbacks, Baltimore had to blitz because it couldn’t count on its four-man rush. The Ravens sent five or more rushers 291 times last season, which led the NFL.
"I think [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale does an unbelievable job taking players, finding out what they can do, putting them in position to succeed, and they did that this year,” DeCosta said. "I thought, what we were able to do on defense, under Wink’s guidance with our coaches and our players, bringing in all those guys that we did, I thought that was masterful.”
In building their defense, the Ravens have placed most of their resources in the secondary. Over the past year, Baltimore invested $76 million in guaranteed money in cornerback Marcus Peters, nickelback Tavon Young and safeties Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark.
It’ll be interesting to see if Baltimore can add a pass-rusher to complement its high-priced defensive backfield.
"I think on defense, if you look at great defenses, historically three things: can rush the passer, can cover and can stop the run,” DeCosta said. "We really do believe all three of those things are really important. We’re trying to build a defense that can do all three of those things. It’s tough with the confines of a salary cap and trying to keep as many good players as you can on offense. It is a little bit of a puzzle, but we’ll continue to try and do that. We believe in that. We’ve been a part of some really good defenses over the last 24 years. We think those are the main components.”