The pads came on Monday in Owings Mills, and few felt them quite like Ravens running back Justice Hill. Near the end of the team’s first padded practice of training camp, Hill caught a pass in the flat from quarterback Lamar Jackson. As he turned upfield, inside linebacker Patrick Queen was already there to meet him. This being the preseason, Queen couldn’t tackle Hill. So he just kind of ran through him.

“Even if you mess up, mess up going 100% and being physical,” Queen said after practice. “Everything else we can correct in the film room, in the classroom. But the main focus today is just to come out, set your pads Day 1, set the tone and just look to get better from there.”

It has not always been that simple for Queen. But here he is, approaching his fourth year as a starter in Baltimore, knowing that his fifth year may well be played elsewhere. In January, the Ravens signed inside linebacker Roquan Smith to a record contract extension for an off-ball linebacker, and by next offseason, Queen might have priced himself out of all but a few teams’ free-agent budgets.

His climb to the cusp of NFL stardom has not been smooth, but it has been steady. Every season Queen’s played has been better than the one before, and now he has maybe the most stable environment of his young career. An All-Pro partner in Smith. A second year under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and inside linebackers coach Zachary Orr. A gap-clogging defensive line. A motivation to prove that the Ravens’ front office erred in declining his fifth-year option.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Patrick,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “My expectations for Patrick are to have a stellar season. And it’s only been affirmed by the way he’s practiced, the way he’s carried himself. He’s in a contract year and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes guys get distracted. And he has not been distracted at all. He is locked in on the mission ahead, and you appreciate that. It’s showing up in the way he’s playing every day.”

Queen and Smith have made their presence known over the past week, no small feat for a position that’s handicapped by the inviolable rules of camp: no hitting before the pads come on, and only a little hitting after they do. Queen sniffed out screens and punctured the pocket on blitzes last week, and on Monday, he helped shut down the Ravens’ running game. Afterward, he was still kicking himself over a pair of 7-yard carries the defense allowed in 11-on-11 drills.

There has always been room for growth in Queen’s game. He emerged as a first-round prospect in 2019, and when the Ravens drafted him No. 28 overall in 2020, Queen was still months away from his 21st birthday. At LSU, he’d never even been a starter for a full season.

Early-career inconsistencies were expected. In Queen’s case, they were also pronounced. He struggled at times under former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, with whom he had an uneven relationship. He missed tackles. He had trouble making the Mike, or middle, linebacker position his own, as Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley had. He sparred with unpleasant fans on social media.

The Ravens’ trade for Smith last October was pegged as an inflection point for Queen, whose athleticism could be better utilized at a weak-side position, but his breakout had already begun. By year’s end, he had career highs in tackles (117), sacks (five), quarterback hits (14), interceptions (two) and passes defended (six). Queen’s win rate as a pass rusher rose to an elite 14.1%, according to Pro Football Focus, while his missed-tackle rate fell to a sound 7.1%, according to Pro Football Reference. Both were also career-best marks.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I definitely haven’t even gotten close to the surface of the player I can be, and everybody around here knows it,” Queen said. “I think people around the league know it. And that’s why I’m out here just trying to get better, trying to compete, trying to just master my craft. And I think when I do that, I think the whole league’s going to be on notice.”

The rewards could be rich. Smith’s five-year deal is worth $100 million. Tremaine Edmunds, who signed with the Chicago Bears in March, is due $18 million annually. Devin White, a former teammate of Queen’s at LSU, is playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under a fifth-year option worth $11.7 million.

Queen acknowledged that he was “pissed” after the Ravens declined his fifth-year option, which would’ve been worth $12.7 million in 2024. But he has seemed at peace with his uncertain future throughout offseason workouts and in training camp. If the Ravens cannot re-sign Queen before he reaches free agency next spring, he would hit the market as a hyperathletic 24-year-old with ever fewer blemishes on his game.

“At the end of the day, I get to play football in the National Football League, so that’s a blessing in itself,” Queen said. “I talk to Harbs, talk to [general manager] Eric [DeCosta]. Everything is good and selling right now. I’m not focused on the contract. I’m just looking to play ball. I mean, at the end of the day, I get to go out here and play football and make my market what I want it to be.”