In 2020, the Ravens drafted a rookie class that needed time to come together. The draft had fallen during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing offseason meetings and workouts into virtual classrooms and gyms. The Ravens’ draft picks, all 10 of them, wouldn’t meet until the start of training camp. Inside linebacker Malik Harrison, a third-round pick, said they talked — gasp! — on the phone instead.
As the Ravens gear up for Sunday’s much-anticipated home game against the Detroit Lions, it’s easy to forget where the spine of their defense was built. But it is perhaps fitting that the team’s foundational 2020 class had a halting start to its NFL journey. Because only now, years later, are that draft’s defensive pieces coming together as one, bolstering one of the league’s best units.
“It’s always good to see your class excel and all of y’all balling together,” Harrison said Wednesday. “We came in together, not knowing what was going on. We had a crazy year, a COVID year. ... Just to see it all fall together and then all of the pieces just come together, we’re just going crazy.”
The class’ impact is undeniable. According to TruMedia, 2020 draft picks have combined to play 28.1% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps this season. The team’s leaders in sacks, interceptions and tackles for loss are all fourth-year Ravens. It’s not inconceivable that all five defenders from that draft class start Sunday against the Lions’ high-octane offense.
Up front are defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. Madubuike, a third-round pick, leads the team with 4.5 sacks — one shy of his career high — and 11 run stops, according to Pro Football Focus. Washington, a fifth-round pick who signed a three-year, $17.5 million contract extension in August, is one of the team’s hardest-working players and has been a pillar of its elite run defense over the past two-plus years.
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, the No. 28 overall draft pick in 2020, is maybe the group’s brightest star, a Pro Bowl-level running mate to Roquan Smith who leads all off-ball linebackers in sacks (3.5) and quarterback pressures (11), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. (His five tackles for loss are also tied for the team lead with Madubuike.) Harrison, taken two rounds after Queen as another inside linebacker, has found a home early this season on the outside, helping to set the edge and grading out as one of PFF’s highest-rated linebackers.
Safety Geno Stone, a seventh-round pick and the Ravens’ 10th and final selection in the 2020 class, has been one of the NFL’s most unlikely stars. Waived near the end of his rookie year before returning to Baltimore in 2021, he’s now tied for the league lead in interceptions (three).
“The fact that you have guys that work hard, that have been able to stack reps in the system … and try to pay attention to detail in terms of technique and are talented and are hard workers — to see the results out there is really rewarding,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday.
For as much as the 2020 draft offered the Ravens’ defense, its returns on offense have been less resounding. Running back J.K. Dobbins has averaged 5.8 yards per carry but appeared in just 24 games, his promising career marred by injury after injury. Devin Duvernay is a two-time Pro Bowl returner but has struggled to break out at wide receiver. Offensive linemen Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson lasted a combined three seasons in Baltimore. Wide receiver James Proche II had just 25 catches over three seasons before he was released.
Of the Ravens’ defensive holdovers, only Washington is signed beyond this season, and quarterback Lamar Jackson’s megadeal will limit general manager Eric DeCosta’s spending power in future offseasons.
Time and salary cap space are running out. Tough decisions will have to be made. Can the Ravens afford top-tier contracts for both Smith and Queen? Has Madubuike played himself into a free-agent bidding war? Will Stone and Harrison look for bigger roles elsewhere?
If any kind of endpoint is nearing for the Ravens’ 2020 class, it hasn’t sunk in yet. Stone said Wednesday that he’d thought recently about how far the group has come since its “COVID year.” He beamed with pride as he rattled off the names of his classmates. It had been a long wait for a season like this.
“We’re all guys that came in together … and now we’re all key contributors to a defense, making plays as much as we can, especially on special teams,” Stone said. “So I feel like our class [has] been playing really well together since we came here, got our opportunities, as much as we can, and made the most of them.”