Odafe Oweh’s 4.37-second 40-yard dash was the fastest of any defensive lineman in NFL draft history. When the Ravens made him a first-round pick two years ago, however, they did not see him as a speed rusher. “He’s not,” director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said.
Oweh was something else: a blazing-fast edge rusher who’d win with strength. Team officials wanted him to blow through tackles, not run around them. They wanted him to convert all that speed into power. Only now, Oweh believes, are they getting that.
“Hell, yeah,” Oweh said after Saturday’s training camp practice at M&T Bank Stadium. “Hell, yeah.”
Oweh’s offseason of self-discovery and self-improvement has continued into training camp, where he’s impressed coaches with his muscled-up physique and slipped past blockers with his evolving pass-rush arsenal.
In some respects, he is a changed man. After the Ravens’ first week of practices, Oweh said he was looking forward to this week’s padded practices. They were more his speed. “I’m more of, like, a power rusher,” he said. It’s a label he knows he might have bristled at a year ago.
“I’m learning who I am as a rusher, so I don’t know if I would’ve called myself a power rusher,” Oweh said, praising the work of first-year outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith. “I’m an explosive guy, so I’m learning how to use that and then learning how to quickly disengage and stuff like that. But like I said, Chuck is doing a good job of letting us know who we are and honing stuff like that. So I would say now, yeah, I’m a power-explosive edge rusher.”
Over Oweh’s two up-and-down seasons in Baltimore, there have been enough hints that the former high school basketball standout could play less like Ja Morant and more like James Harden. In the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Bengals, he recorded one sack after a bull rush that knocked left tackle Jonah Williams back into quarterback Joe Burrow as if he were on skates. On another play, Oweh walked back right guard Max Scharping a few yards after striking him with his right arm. On another play, he disengaged so violently from Hakeem Adeniji that the right tackle looked like he’d tripped on a wire.
Oweh’s target playing weight hasn’t changed over the past year. What he’s carrying on that 260-pound frame has. He said he’s leaner this year, with fat replaced by muscle, especially in his upper body, which he struggled to develop after offseason shoulder surgery last year. In mid-June, he shared on his Instagram story a body composition chart showing he’d put on 12 pounds of lean muscle since November and less than two pounds of fat.
“I feel good,” Oweh said. “I got a full offseason under my belt for the first time in a while, probably since, like, sophomore year of college. I’ve had to deal with a lot of surgeries, so it was a good year of getting stronger and working on technique, getting the mentals right. ... Should be good. Should be fun.”
Oweh joked that head coach John Harbaugh has told the defense to play with only so much physicality in camp, so his options as a pass rusher are, at times, limited. That hasn’t kept him from winning every so often against left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right tackle Morgan Moses. With his improved hand-fighting, Oweh has been able to turn the corner quicker and flatten his path to the pocket, even if he can’t so much as breathe on quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Smith wants Ravens defenders to have a “signature” pass-rush move. After eight sacks in two seasons, Oweh’s is still under construction. But his athletic profile lends itself to all kinds of possibilities.
He has the wingspan for a “long arm” technique — getting a hand into a lineman’s chest and taking him for a ride before he can swipe it away. He has the footwork to set blockers up for a spin move, as he did on a Week 18 sack against the Bengals. And he has the strength, size and speed that can unbalance tackles just long enough to execute any of the more conventional pass-rush moves, from a bull rush to a swipe and rip to a “hump” move.
“I think any good pass rush is going to start with power,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “If you just go down the list of the top pass rushers throughout the league, they have some sort of power. If you have no threat of power, tackles are not going to respect it, and the rest of your stuff isn’t going to be set up as well. …
“I think it showed up last year on [Oweh’s] tape, too. I think [what] you see when you turn the tape on is, he’s got a great long arm, and then the counters off it. But just like any great pass rusher, you’ve got to have that element if you’re going to have any success.”
When Smith met with Oweh after he was hired, he told him size wasn’t a prerequisite for power. Smith has pointed to then-Los Angeles Rams defensive end Leonard Floyd’s performance in Super Bowl LVI, when he was asked to bull-rush against the Bengals as a relative lightweight (a listed 240 pounds).
Smith wants Oweh to focus on angles. He wants him to reconsider how he approaches tackles, who are also big and quick and don’t get fooled easily.
“We know we’re going to add power, but when you add that kind of speed, he’s going to have power and he’s going to have success with the bull rush,” Smith said. “That’s just part of it.”
Oweh said he appreciates how individualized Smith’s lessons have been. “Not everyone is the same type of pass rusher,” he explained. For proof, he might well point to the player he used to be and the player he wants to be.