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Ravens training camp preview: How much will the rookie inside linebackers make an impact on the defense?

Ravens training camp preview: How much will the rookie inside linebackers make an impact on the defense?

Rostered inside linebackers: Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, L.J. Fort, Chris Board, Otaro Alaka, Kristian Welch

In mid-April the Ravens’ weakest position, both in terms of the starting lineup and the team’s depth, likely was their inside linebackers.

And in three rounds of the NFL Draft, the Ravens turned a big hole on their defense into one of the most interesting positions on the roster.

The Ravens picked LSU linebacker Patrick Queen 28th overall, then double-dipped at inside linebacker with the selection of Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison in the third round at 98th overall. The duo of rookies instantly turned the Ravens inside linebacking corps into a strength.

Queen was a national champion last year and started 12 games for the Tigers. He made 95 tackles and had three sacks with one interception. The Ravens spoke time and time again about his sideline-to-sideline speed, which should play well behind the Ravens’ massive defensive front. 

Last year, the Ravens played safety Chuck Clark at middle linebacker in a handful of situations, perhaps more than the team would’ve preferred, but Queen’s addition means defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale can move Clark back into the secondary on obvious running situations. Queen will start at the MIKE, or middle, linebacker in the team’s defense. 

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One of the benefits of Queen, too, is that he doesn't have to come off the field on passing downs. If the Ravens want to keep him on the field for all three downs, he's certainly got the talent to do so.

He could very well be flanked by a fellow member of his draft class in Harrison, who fits the mold of an old-school linebacker. 

Harrison was a two-year starter at Ohio State and made 81 and 75 tackles in the last two seasons of his career. He also had 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2019. The Ravens expect Harrison to start at the WILL (weak-side) linebacker, but emphasized that both Queen and Harrison can rotate spots at linebacker. 

But if the two rookies aren’t able to pick up the NFL game quick enough to demand immediate playing time, they’ve got L.J. Fort, Chris Board and Otaro Alaka returning at linebacker who have played in the system for a year already. 

Fort has the most experience, as he’s played in 77 games in his career and made eight starts last season for the Ravens. He made 35 combined tackles and registered two sacks as a mid-season addition for the defense. 

Board played in just 64 defensive snaps a season ago and was predominantly used on special teams. Alaka made the original roster as an undrafted free agent but was put on injured reserve at the end of September. 

So while the Ravens have three players on the roster who have experience in the system, just one (Fort) had significant in-game experience a season ago which made Queen and Harrison’s selections all the more important. 

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Kristian Welch, an inside linebacker out of Iowa who signed this year as an undrafted free agent, likely will be competing for a spot on the practice squad in training camp. 

If the Ravens are guaranteed to keep Queen, Harrison and Fort on the roster this year, the number of inside linebackers the team carries could mean either Alaka or Board find themselves not on the 53-man roster. For a majority of the season a year ago, the Ravens carried four inside linebackers. Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, two of those four, will play for different teams in the 2020 season. 

Last year, the Ravens’ top two leading tacklers were Clark and cornerback Marlon Humphrey before Onwuasor at third. Now, with two new rookies in the fold, the team’s defensive options increased significantly. 

Both Queen and Harrison add speed and size to a defense that added four new defensive linemen in free agency, as the front seven’s overhaul took centerstage this offseason. 

And if the Ravens are able to get Queen and Harrison as much as the team would like, they’ll have some new leading tacklers in 2020. 

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Ravens DT Brandon Williams doesn't see how opposing offenses can attack their defense

Ravens DT Brandon Williams doesn't see how opposing offenses can attack their defense

Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams looks a bit different entering the 2020 season. He’s also got some teammates that look different, too. 

The Ravens added defensive tackles Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to the front line, meaning Williams will kick inside to nosetackle this season. He’s changed his body composition as a result, and has shaved off some fat and added more muscle.

“I’ve got to eat the greens, eat the vegetables, the broccoli and whatnot,” Williams said Friday on a Zoom call with reporters. “But, then just working on my body composition, just working on being more — not lighter — but more toned so I can play that nose and keep running the way I do. Those two additions, Wolfe and Calais, I’ve got the twin towers right next to me — those two giants. I don’t see how offenses can come at us, man.”

In order to slim down a little bit the 31-year-old ate with a more watchful eye, as he knew his body would respond accordingly during the season.

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“I’m trying to get my slim-sexy going on — you know what I’m saying?” Williams quipped. “You know, the older you get, the harder it is to get that weight off you, the harder it is to move. You have to think about the joints and all the double-teams you’re taking up and all that stuff. So, when you come in a little bit lighter, it just relieves all that pain a lot of that — I guess — nagging stuff you have to worry about early on.”

Williams had 34 tackles last season and one sack, but is hopeful his move back to the nosetackle spot after the additions of Campbell, Wolfe and draft choices Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington will create a defensive line capable of wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. 

“Those two dudes are good, and I like what I’ve got,” Williams said. “I like my team. I like the way they look, and the new guys are coming up great. We’ve got a lot of things going for us on the D-line and I’m excited to see it.”

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A very good day for NFL tight ends George Kittle and Travis Kelce

A very good day for NFL tight ends George Kittle and Travis Kelce

It’s been a good day for tight ends in the NFL.

To start the day George Kittle became the highest-paid tight end in the league. Shortly after, Travis Kelce signed an extension keeping him in Kansas City for an additional four years. Now it’s hard to talk about NFL tight ends and not mention either Kittle or Kelce’s name as two of the best in the league. It was only fitting that the two get paid on the exact same day.  

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Kittle and the San Francisco 49ers reached an agreement on a five-year, $75 million contract extension. Kittle deserves every penny of that deal as he’s racked up 2,945 receiving yards, the most by any tight end in NFL history after three seasons. He’s a do-it-all tight end who has great hands, blocks like a guard, and is a huge asset to the locker room.  

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs and Travis Kelce agreed to a four-year, $57.25 million extension. Kelce is a huge part of the Chiefs offense and his stats show that he’s one of the best in the league. He’s the only tight end to ever record four straight 1,000 yard seasons and he’s the fastest tight end ever to 425 career catches and 5,500 receiving yards.  

Kittle and Kelce have set the bar high with their play on the field, but they have now also set the bar for the price tag at their position that comes along with it. 

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