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For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
At this point last offseason, we wondered if the additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe would mean a tweak in the team’s playstyle along the front line. The answer was a resounding no. Baltimore has traditionally run a two-gap scheme, asking their front three to control the line of scrimmage by occupying space and blockers. In 2019, Ravens defensive linemen recorded just four sacks between them but did their jobs by helping Baltimore hold opponents to the fifth-fewest rushing yards. Meanwhile, Campbell and Wolfe combined for 13.5 sacks with the Jaguars and Broncos, respectively.
Over their careers, both Campbell and Wolfe have had success in aggressive, penetrating, one-gap schemes, and both have played defensive end in aggressive three-man fronts. With the Ravens coming off a sub-standard (for them) 37 sacks in 2019, it made sense that the signing of these two might mean a more aggressive one-gap approach to fit the skillsets of their new starters.
The scheme remained pretty much the same in 2020. Campbell and Wolfe combined for five sacks, and the rest of the defensive line had four. While that represents some pass rush improvement from the front-three, the team still had fewer than 40 sacks, and the run defense plummeted to number 22, allowing 4.6 yards-per-carry.
On the season, Campbell was 18-10-4 with six batted passes. His numbers would have been much better had he not suffered a calf strain in week eight that caused him to miss time and hampered his play for the rest of the season. Even before the injury, Campbell was not the player we were used to seeing. Three of his four sacks came in one game against the hapless Eagles offensive line, and he had no more than two solo tackles in any other game.
Some will point to his age and say that at 34 (35 on September 1st), Campbell is too old to be effective. He is not the player he once was, and his days as a perennial top-ten defensive lineman are over. But he can still play. In 2019 he finished 36-20-6.5 with 3 turnovers. That said, he will be hard-pressed to overcome the limitations of the scheme at this stage of his career.
Wolfe is not as old as Campbell, nor has he ever been as talented and productive a player. Even so, his single sack in 2020 was a major disappointment. Wolfe did manage 51 combined tackles, but even that had a strange twist in that he had 19 solos and 32 assists.
The bottom line here is that scheme limitations are a major factor in holding back the fantasy potential of Baltimore’s linemen. None of them had more than 19 solo tackles in 2020, and Campbell led the group with four sacks. The cast will remain the same in 2021. Campbell’s numbers will bounce back a bit if he can stay healthy, but his ceiling at this point is hit or miss DL3.
Last year’s third-round pick, Justin Madubuike, and fifth-rounder Broderick Washington are the top backups at defensive end. Both are 300+ pound roadblocks that fit the 2-gap mold. Madubuike is the heir apparent to Campbell. He had 40+combined tackles and 5.5 sacks in each of his two years as a starter at Texas A&M, so there is at least some potential for future value.
Bradon Williams will get the title of starter at nose tackle, but he and Justin Ellis split playing time at the position virtually equally in 2020. With the defensive end positions being light on experience, Ellis can also serve as a veteran option at that position.
- DE Calais Campbell – DL3 without much upside
- DE Derek Wolfe – Marginal impact expected
- DE Justin Madubuike – No immediate impact
- DE Broderick Washington – No impact
- NT Brandon Williams – No impact
- NT Justin Ellis – No impact
Baltimore’s inside linebacker positions ran the gambit from exciting, through confusing, and finally to somewhat disappointing 2020. Most of the emotional trail followed rookie Patrick Queen. We were excited when the Ravens selected him near the end of round one. Finally, the team was going to have a star in the lineup to replace C.J. Mosley, and finally, we were going to get a top-shelf IDP contributor at a position that had been a perennial IDP gold mine until the end of the 2018 season.
The Ravens filled a major need by drafting Queen. He is a do-everything three-down inside linebacker who immediately impacted the field and box scores. He is a bit undersized at 6’0” 229 pounds, but Queen makes up for it with instinct, quickness, and tenacity. He is a physical tackler who rarely misses, has good range, excels in coverage, and can get home on the blitz when asked to do so. This leads us to the confusing portion of this story.
Despite the draft status, skillset, talent, and lack of a true leader in the middle of the defense before his arrival, Queen played just over 80% of the snaps in 2020. His 858 of a possible 1063 snaps were by far the most of any inside linebacker on the roster, but why would a defensive coordinator take a guy off the field in any situation when he is arguably the best player in their front seven and undoubtedly the player the organization is counting on to lead the defense into the future? This takes us to Chapter Three, Somewhat Disappointing.
Queen ranked 16th among linebackers at the end of his rookie season. That, in itself, is not at all disappointing. At least not until we consider what his numbers would have been with 20% more playing time. Queen’s final totals were 66-40-3 with 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, an interception, and a score, for an average of 10.97 points per game. Add 20% to those numbers, and we get 79-48-3.5 with 6 turnovers and 13.16 points per game, which would have ranked inside the top ten.
The narrative for Queen’s second season follows the same path to some degree. The positive from his rookie season is that we have established a high floor for him in 2021. We know there is virtually no risk outside of injury, which makes the potential for a huge year two exciting. The confusion is that we expect -- but have no way to be certain -- that the coaching staff will keep him on the field full-time in Year 2. Those of us with Queen on our rosters are keeping our fingers crossed that the final chapter to book two of this series has a different title than Somewhat Disappointing. Something like Welcome to the Elite Tier would be nice and is not a far-fetched possibility.
Baltimore used a committee approach at the other inside linebacker spot with L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, and Chris Board all playing at least 261 snaps. Fort was the starter and leader in playing time at 380. There is potential for good production from this position, providing someone steps up and claims all the playing time. As of mid-July, however, there is no reason to expect that will happen.
Fort is currently listed as the starter on the team’s unofficial depth chart. Baltimore is his third team in three seasons as a pro, but the former undrafted free-agent seems to have found a home. He played surprisingly well after joining the Ravens during the 2019 season and made good use of his opportunity last year, going 32-20-0 with 3 turnovers and 3 pass breakups on less than 36% of the snaps. Fort is just adequate in coverage but showed a knack for getting home on the blitz with a pair of sacks in 2019. He is a possible candidate for full playing time if the coaching staff elects to go that way.
Fort’s biggest competition will come from Harrison, who was drafted two rounds behind Queen last year. Harrison was a productive two-year starter at Ohio State, playing all three downs for most of those two seasons. He is athletic enough, but at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he is more of a downhill run defender who can stack and shed at the point of attack. Harrison is slightly above average in coverage while having the potential to excel as an inside pass rusher. He had nine career sacks for the Buckeyes, including six in his final two seasons there. Harrison saw his playing time decline late in 2020, in favor of Board, but the year of experience could make a big difference in his second season.
Board is entering his third year with Baltimore. The former undrafted free agent has shown steady development and has been a significant contributor on special teams but is a long shot at earning much more playing time than the 261 snaps he saw in 2020.
Baltimore has been without an elite edge defender since Terrell Suggs was in his prime. They have, however, been successful by using a collection of solid veteran players in their edge rotation. Longtime starter Matt Judon led the team with six sacks in 2020. Yannick Ngakoue joined the Ravens for the second half of the season and added three, but both play elsewhere in 2021. That leaves the Ravens with Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson, and Pernell McPhee, who are all dependable veteran contributors that can hold the edge against the run and contribute to the pass rush. Still, none of these players have elite upside. The organization believes that first-round rookie Odafe Oweh can be the guy to provide that, just not necessarily this year.
Oweh did not put up stellar numbers at Penn State, but he has elite potential. Considering that he played fewer than 200 snaps in each of the last two seasons, his numbers are not that bad either. He is a somewhat raw talent, but Baltimore believes the young man can be special with some good coaching. He should factor into the rotation as a rookie, especially on passing downs, but is not likely to post numbers of value to IDP managers right away. Dynasty managers in big-play-based leagues might want to consider Oweh a stash prospect to tuck away on the taxi squad.
- ILB Patrick Queen – Strong LB2 floor with top-five upside
- ILB L.J. Fort – Watchlist sleeper with limited upside
- ILB Malik Harrison – Watchlist deep sleeper
- ILB Chris Board – No impact expected
- OLB Jaylon Ferguson – No impact
- OLB Tyus Bowser – No impact
- OLB Pernell McPhee – No impact
- OLB Odafe Oweh – Dynasty target or re-draft sleeper in big play formats.
There are no sure things in fantasy football but saying there will be no Ravens safety among the Top 15 is pretty darn close. The last time we saw a Baltimore corner with that kind of value was in 2004 when Ed Reed had 64 combined tackles and 9 interceptions. The closest anyone has come since that time was last year when Chuck Clark’s 54-40-1.5 with 5 turnovers, 4 passes defended, and a score landed him at 21.
Clark found his way into the starting lineup during the 2019 season and has solidified his role as the starter. He is a versatile safety with good cover ability but is at his best in an in-the-box, run-support role. Clark rarely makes a mental mistake or misses a tackle. Unfortunately for IDP managers, Baltimore safeties simply do not make a lot of tackles. Without taking the time to do the research, I believe Clark’s 94 combined tackles and assists might be the most in team history by a safety.
Depending on splash plays to fill in gaps in the tackle columns tends to make players inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. In 2020, Clark reached double-digit fantasy points in seven games. With six or fewer in six others. Clark can be a solid third starter with a little upside on any given week if he can continue to put marks in the big-play columns and repeat last years’ tackle totals.
Both Clark and free-safety DeShon Elliot put up better tackle numbers in 2020 than we are used to seeing from Baltimore’s safeties. That may have a lot to do with the situation at inside linebacker. Elliot did a solid job in his first year as a starter and does not appear to have any serious competition for the starting job. Still, there is no reason to expect fantasy-friendly production from him going forward.
Until the last two seasons, the Ravens’ corner positions were no more productive than their safeties had been. When Marlon Humphrey went 53-11-0 with eight takeaways and 14 passes defended in 2019, we all assumed it was a fluke. When he returned last season with 70 tackles, 12 assists, 2.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, an interception, and 10 pass breakups, we had to start paying attention.
Humphrey is a great example of how great players around them can impact box score production, particularly at the corner positions. Over his first two seasons, Humphrey was the Ravens' number one corner. In 2017 and 2018, he combined for 61 tackles, 9 assists, 4 interceptions, and a forced fumble. In 2019 the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters, an elite cover corner and arguably the top big-play threat in the league. As a result, Humphrey's statistical explosion made him the second-highest scoring corner and sixth-ranked defensive back, but there was still a little week-to-week inconsistency. Having the third-most tackles by a corner in 2020 resolved the consistency issue. Humphrey was not only the ninth-ranked defensive back and number four corner, but he hit double-digit fantasy points in 11 of 14 games. Twice is a trend and Peters is still lining up on the other side, so look for another excellent year from Humphries.
Marcus Peters has averaged around 40 solo tackles over the last five seasons, but he is the only defender in the league that can be counted on for at least one defensive touchdown nearly every year. Last season was the first time since 2016 that he failed to score at least once, but he did manage better tackle totals (46 solos) while accounting for 10 turnovers and a sack. The low tackle output makes him a boom or bust fantasy option on a week-to-week basis, but when he booms, Peters can win the game both for his team and yours. He is a gambler with a winning record and tends to have more boom games than not. Peters will give up a big play now and then but has accounted for 59 takeaways (33 interceptions) and 7 scores in six seasons and has been a perennial top-12 corner.
Jimmy Smith was a starter for the Ravens over much of his ten NFL seasons but struggled with injuries often. Sliding into the third corner role has worked out well for both him and the Ravens. Smith has completed a full slate of games four times in his career. Two of those were 2019 and 2020. Few teams can boast a trio of corners with so much talent, but Smith had virtually no fantasy impact even when he was in the lead role.
Tavon Young is the dime package corner when healthy but has played in just six games over the last two seasons due to injuries. If he cannot break that curse, he could be replaced by rookie third-round pick Brandon Stephens or possibly fifth-round selection Shaun Wade.
- SS Chuck Clark – DB3 with possible upside but week to week consistency potential as well
- SS DeShon Elliott – Marginal IDP value at best
- FS/SS Anthony Levine Sr – Injust sleeper with low floor
- SS/FS Jordan Richardson – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- CB Marlon Humphrey – Priority CB1 or low-end DB1
- CB Marcus Peters – CB1 or gambler’s DB3 due to inconsistency
- CB Jimmy Smith – No impact
- CB Tavon Young –No impact
- CB Brandon Stephens – Injury sleeper at best
- CB Shaun Wade – No impact expected
- CB/FS Anthony Averett – No impact
Outside of the play and fantasy production of the safeties, there is not much positive from the Bengals defense in 2020, either on the field on in terms of fantasy value. On the field, Cincinnati allowed 7.3 yards per pass, which was tied for 19th, only the Texans allowed more yards-per-carry on the ground, their 17 turnovers ranked 28th, Cincinnati was one of three teams that didn’t score a defensive touchdown, no one recorded fewer than their 17 sacks, and somehow they were no worse than 22nd in points allowed. From the fantasy football perspective, Jesse Bates and Vonn Bell were the only Bengals to average more than 8.7 points per game or score more than 125 points on the season.
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