Ravens need this player to take off in 2015


It’s one of those chicken or egg kind of questions.  Was Pernell McPhee’s 2014 success a product of being surrounded by elite pass rushers and a dominant line, or did his consistent penetration open things up for the other guys?  Most people would say the former, but there’s no question McPhee’s production was a major factor in the success of the defense last season.

Courtney Upshaw is tentatively expected to fill McPhee’s shoes, but as we’ve discussed before, success for the contract year player is not guaranteed.  A career edge setter, Upshaw has recorded a mere 1.5 sacks in his pro career after racking up 16.5 in college.  He’s also had only 13 quarterback hits across his three seasons.

To put things in perspective, McPhee had 40 hurries, 24 QB hits, and 7.5 sacks last season alone.  Will moving Upshaw into McPhee’s spot as a package player suddenly turn him into the next great Ravens pass rusher, or will he flop?  Only time will tell, but the Ravens aren’t without an insurance policy regardless.

That insurance policy comes in the form of 2015 fourth round draft pick Za’Darius Smith.  The OLB/DE hybrid player has drawn plenty of McPhee comparisons, but has also been compared to Upshaw as well. In college, Smith was indeed an edge setter who used his relentless motor to rush the passer.  Despite a lack of ideal athleticism, Smith turned sheer effort into production.

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The Ravens have, so far, been very happy with what they have seen.  There’s no doubt that they drafted Smith with an eye towards a role either replacing Upshaw this season or next, or as an upside pass rusher who can grow into a major role.  Either way, it’s a win.

If Za’Darius Smith can catch on quickly and push Upshaw in 2015, it will be a major boon for the defense.  We’ve seen how the presence of a third rushing ‘backer can transform this defense from “good” to “great,” and they need to be great for this team to contend for another Super Bowl.  And Smith might just be that guy, for seasons to come.

Next: Za'Darius Smith 2015 predictions

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