Ravens: Linebacker will be the team’s most important position battle

Ravens (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Ravens (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Ravens linebacker corps has a lot of work to do this season.

On the edge, they already have high expectations for Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh, among others, to improve their pass-rush production. On the inside, the Ravens also need to beef up, and it starts with Patrick Queen.

A few weeks ago, Queen insisted that Baltimore still had a top-five defense, but that’ll largely come down to how he and his pals fare in the grueling linebacker battles at training camp.

Queen is the de facto leader of the bunch, so his position really isn’t up for debate. Ideally, Baltimore would like to see more consistent performances from their potential breakout star in his second year (specifically, better pass coverage), but all in all, he’s lived up to the hype.

Queen played more than twice as many defensive snaps as any other inside linebacker last season (his rookie season) and will carry the brunt of linebacker duties in 2021.

Fans love him. Opponents, not so much, but then again that’s just part of the job requirements.

The real pay-per-view linebacker battle will be between L.J. Fort and Malik Harrison for the spot alongside Queen.

Fort is a nine-year league veteran who split time with Harrison last season at inside linebacker. He’s easily the most seasoned and most “complete” player in the group who was also Mr. Reliable in the 14 games he played in 2020.

He finished the season with an 8.6 missed tackle percentage (roughly half of Queen’s percentage) and earned PFF’s fourth-highest run defense grade among linebackers.

No question about it, Fort is a good run-stopper. But so is Harrison.

Ravens’ inside linebacker battle will define the state of defense in 2021

The 2020 third-round pick appeared in 18 games last year recording 48 total tackles and a pass deflection. Harrison suffered some natural rookie growing pains but showcased surprising skill as a thumper at linebacker who could shed blocks and take on huge linemen.

Next season, Harrison will probably continue serving in a two-man rotation with Fort, but he might not be satisfied with playing time.

Harrison played about the same number of snaps on special teams as he did on defense last season, but if he impresses in camp, he could eventually win a starting role. We hope so.

Another small but still mighty competitor in the Ravens linebacker battle is Chris Board. If Fort and Harrison play well, it’s unlikely Board will see much or any of the field, but he has made a name for himself as a special teams ace and can contribute where necessary.

Board’s 2020 career-high numbers (31 total tackles, five quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one pass deflection) suggest he’s only trending upward.

As Board enters his fourth season with Baltimore, he must already know he’ll only get precious snaps, but expect him to make the most of it.

With the league becoming more and more “pass-happy,” and with opponents often adding a third receiver in their formations, Fort, Harrison, and Board must make an impact however they can: early downs, on special teams, and (obviously) alongside Queen.

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A good chunk of the Ravens’ success (and yes, their “top-five defense” status) rests on the shoulders of these four linebackers. They’ll head into training camp with their honor and reputation on the line.