Terrell Suggs took down a quarterback 14 times in 2011 as the Ravens ranked near the top of the NFL in most major defensive categories. The 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year wasn't exactly flying solo as he reached a career-high in sacks, but whenever opponents shut him down , as was the case in the final month of the season, the defense was merely good.
One way for the Ravens to become the league's most fearsome defense again is to find a wingman for Suggs.
"You can tell how difficult it is by the time the Ravens have spent trying to come up with one," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, an analyst for NFL Network and FOX. "They thought they had one with [Sergio Kindle], who obviously didn't turn out. ... Everybody is looking for that edge rusher — either a dominant guy or a guy to be opposite of someone you already have."
Nine years ago, the Ravens drafted the former in Suggs, a premier pass rusher who may be even better at stopping the run. Now as they hope to emerge as the NFL's top-ranked defense for the first time since 2006, they might take another bookend edge rusher in this week's NFL draft.
But the Ravens won't be the only team targeting these valuable commodities. As few as six and as many as 10 pass rushers are projected to come off the board in the first round Thursday.
Ones who could be available when the Ravens are on the clock at No. 29 include Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, USC's Nick Perry, Clemson's Andre Branch, Boise State's Shea McClellin, and Syracuse's Chandler Jones (the younger brother of Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones). The Ravens could also trade up to get a player they really covet.
Many more pass rush prospects will be available Friday and Saturday if they pass on one with their first pick. They come in different shapes and sizes, with varying skill sets and pedigrees, which challenges the Ravens to identify players who will mesh with what they do defensively.
It can be tricky determining whether a prospect that played defensive end exclusively in college has enough athleticism, versatility and smarts to maneuver in space as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front. The Ravens will look at what position he played in high school to see if it can be done.
"I think [if] you look at where they played in high school, [it] helps," director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "Guys grow and you get a lot of safeties that become D-ends. You get certainly a lot of linebackers that become D-ends. If they played on two feet in high school, they've done it."
They also get a feel for what prospects can and can't do at the scouting combine, pro days and, for some, private workouts. "You take everything into account — the workouts, how he plays on film, and if he does drop [into coverage] a little bit, you can bring that tape to the table," Hortiz said.
And in this, a "pretty full" draft class of edge rushers, the Ravens like what they have seen.
That's a good thing because improving the pass rush is one of three offseason priorities, along with bolstering the offensive line and adding a receiver, that general manger Ozzie Newsome identified in February. After a quiet first month of free agency, he highlighted that need again.
When Chuck Pagano was named defensive coordinator after the Ravens recorded just 27 sacks in 2010, he pledged to wreak havoc. Mission accomplished — until Week 14. The Ravens finished third in the NFL with 48 sacks in 2011, but they had only four in their final five games, including just one in the postseason, as their opponents often neutralized Suggs with multiple blockers.
Dean Pees has been tabbed to replace Pagano, who left to coach the Indianapolis Colts, and Pees promises that the defensive schemes will remain in place and the aggression will still rage on. The personnel haven't drastically changed, either. Linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding signed elsewhere this spring, but those veterans tallied just seven sacks combined.
The Ravens haven't had two defenders record more than six sacks apiece in a season since 2006, when four, including Suggs, had at least 9.5 sacks as the team set a single-season record with 60.
"If they had a really speedy player there opposite of Suggs, they would go a long way," said Matt Williamson, a former Cleveland Browns scout who now writes for ESPN's Scouts Inc. "That's a lot of pressure to put on Terrell Suggs. As great as he is, if he has an off day or is consistently getting doubled, somebody else has to step up in that situation. They don't really have that guy."
The Ravens thought they had that guy in Kindle, a second-round pick in 2010. Seen by many draftniks as a first-round talent, the team hoped Kindle would form a tag team with Suggs that would rival James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he has yet to make an impact — and he may never make one — after missing all of his rookie year with a fractured skull.
Outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Pernell McPhee thrived at times as situational pass rushers last season. But it's unclear if they can be counted on to produce full-time should they secure the starting spots that have been vacated by Johnson and Redding, respectively.
That's why the Ravens will sift through this draft class for that speedy sack specialist who can make an opponent pay for keying in on Suggs. But unearthing another gem first won't be easy.
"Pass rushers are always hard to find. There just aren't a lot of them," said CBS analyst Charley Casserly, former G.M. of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. "It's hard to find guys that have quickness, speed and that kind of ability to rush the passer. It's a hard skill to have."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
|Andre Branch||Clemson||6-4||259||He finished eighth in the nation last year with 10.5 sacks. He runs well for a man his size and did a little bit of everything for Clemson, including playing linebacker.|
|Chandler Jones||Syracuse||6-5||266||Jones, the younger brother of Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones and UFC fighter Jon Jones, has rocketed up draft boards since going pro after his junior season .|
|Shea McClellin||Boise State||6-3||260||McClellin is said to be gaining late momentum and is a great fit for teams looking for a speedy edge rusher. He racked up 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons.|
|Whitney Mercilus||Illinois||6-4||261||Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and forced nine fumbles in 2011 but there are questions about whether he can thrive at outside linebacker.|
|Nick Perry||USC||6-3||271||Perry probably won't be available by the time the Ravens are on the clock, but he flashed a good mix of size, strength and athleticism while lining up as a defensive end .|
|Courtney Upshaw||Alabama||6-2||272||No need to worry about how he will fit in a 3-4 scheme. Upshaw was one of the nation's premier pass rushers playing in a 3-4 at Alabama, and he is stout against the run, too.|