For the first time in team history, the Baltimore Ravens are faced with the prospect of paying a franchise quarterback and, while fans will be glad to see Joe Flacco signed up long-term, it makes for some tough decisions elsewhere. One of those dilemmas is at linebacker, where they are unlikely to be able to re-sign both inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside linebacker Paul Kruger — their two best pass rushers from 2012. In another edition of Free Agency Duels, PFF Analysts Gordon McGuinness and Pete Damilatis state their case for who they believe the Ravens need to keep in Baltimore.
Why it has to be Ellerbe
By Gordon McGuinness
The biggest story in Baltimore’s Super Bowl season was obviously the injury and retirement of Ray Lewis. While many assumed the Ravens’ campaign was over when Lewis went down with what was thought to be a season-ending injury, it gave Dannell Ellerbe the opportunity to step up and show the Ravens he was the long-term solution at the position. Finishing the season as our 14th-highest graded inside linebacker, Ellerbe did his best work as a starter, compiling a cumulative grade of +11.5 in his 11 regular and postseason starts, compared with -6.3 in the six games he played as a reserve.
Against the run Ellerbe was solid, with 23 of his 35 solo tackles resulting in a defensive stop. Coming on 223 snaps against the run, that was good enough for a Run Stop Percentage of 10.3, tied for 14th among players at his position. A look at his stats for the season shows Ellerbe with six missed tackles in the regular season, and five of them came against receivers in coverage. With just one missed tackle from 47 attempted against the run, Ellerbe was our fifth-most efficient tackler at his position in that regard.
However, he truly excelled as a pass rusher, where he gave Baltimore the inside threat they were lacking until he got into the line-up. With five sacks, four hits and nine hurries from just 79 snaps as a pass rusher, Ellerbe’s Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) Rating of 18.7 was the best among inside linebackers. That number could have been even more impressive, however, with Ellerbe on pace for our highest PRP rating from an inside linebacker since we began grading in 2008, before being slowed by injury late in the year. Five of his 18 total pressures did come unblocked, but if you look back at his play as a pass rusher on the season, his burst from the snap allowed him to put pressure on quarterbacks almost instantly.
He made a name for himself this past season and, heading into an offseason where he is one of the top inside linebackers available, will find himself in a fair bit of demand. One place where he is a perfect fit is Cleveland, where new defensive coordinator Ray Horton has been known to send inside linebackers to blitz often, with only the Pittsburgh Steelers starting duo seeing more pass rush attempts than his inside linebackers in Arizona a year ago. The Ravens don’t want to see Ellerbe leave, and certainly not to a division rival, so as tough as a decision as it may be, he has to be their top free agent priority, next to quarterback Joe Flacco.
Why it shouldn’t be Ellerbe
By Peter Damilatis
The Ravens may not be champions today if not for Ellerbe’s clutch play in place of Lewis and Jameel McClain. He was Baltimore’s best linebacker in the Super Bowl, and was considered one of our Best Subs of 2012. However, although he was undoubtedly productive when attacking the line of scrimmage, his -5.0 pass coverage grade reveals his struggles when backpedaling. Teams targeted Ellerbe for 369 yards and 220 yards after the catch in the regular season. He surrendered 1.18 yards per coverage snap, and allowed a reception once every 8.2 coverage snaps, both among the highest rates for an inside linebacker. Twenty-three of the 38 receptions he allowed went for a first down, and quarterbacks had a 97.1 rating when throwing into his area. This wasn’t just a down year either, as Ellerbe earned a -7.8 coverage grade in sparing snaps last season.
Looking back at past years is what makes me reluctant to invest the little cap space the Ravens have into Ellerbe. Before Lewis’ Week 6 injury, Ellerbe earned a -23.5 grade as a backup and spot starter over the past four seasons. Should Baltimore, which is already short on cap space before Flacco’s new monster contract, invest long-term in a linebacker with a clear coverage weakness and just an 11-game run as a quality starter? I’d rather see Ozzie Newsome put his dollars toward a better player, with a longer track record. Speaking of which…
Why it has to be Kruger
By Peter Damilatis
When Terrell Suggs suffered an Achilles injury in May, many pointed to first-round pick Courtney Upshaw as the man to replace his production. A Ravens linebacker did step up to become one of the best pass rushers of the 2012 season, but it wasn’t Upshaw. Paul Kruger’s +7.9 grade was the sixth-best of any 3-4 outside linebacker, and his 12.2 Pass Rushing Productivity was the highest at his position. Suggs was a shell of himself even after his return, so it was often up to Kruger to single-handedly carry the Ravens’ rush. He had 55 quarterback pressures in the regular season, while no other Baltimore linebacker had more than 21. His 20 pressures in the playoffs was double the total of any of his teammates. He harassed and battered Andrew Luck with five hurries, three hits, and three sacks in the Ravens’ Wild Card victory, and tallied two of their three sacks in the Super Bowl.
Like Ellerbe, Kruger was offered the chance to start this season and ran with it. Unlike Ellerbe, Kruger had shown this potential before as a backup. Playing in just 31.1% of the Ravens’ snaps last season, Kruger had an 8.9 Pass Rushing Productivity and generated 29 quarterback pressures. His two best grades of the season came in games when he played in 48.8% and 55.9% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps. Rather than a small sample size, this is the case of a promising pass rusher turning into one of the league’s best when he was finally given the opportunity.
Look at the rest of the Ravens’ roster, and you have to wonder how they’ll replace Kruger’s pass rush if they lose him. Upshaw’s +14.8 run defense grade this season was second-best at his position, but his -17.6 pass rush grade was third-worst. And Suggs was equally awful, with a paltry 5.6 Pass Rush Productivity and -15.9 pass rush grade. You could blame his down year on his Achilles injury, but the fact is that “T-Sizzle” is now on the wrong side of 30. Despite his Defensive Player of the Year award and 14 sacks in 2011, his +2.9 pass rush grade that season indicate that he may have already been more sizzle than substance. Expecting him to return to his All-Pro form is wishful thinking at this point.
Ellerbe is a quality player who will be a valuable piece for whatever team he’s on next season. However, he doesn’t have Kruger’s track record and Baltimore can more easily replace a downhill-playing linebacker with coverage issues than it can its best outside pass rusher. If Newsome has the cap space for one of these young defensive cogs, Kruger needs to be the priority.
Why it shouldn’t be Kruger
By Gordon McGuinness
Paul Kruger did a tremendous job in a bigger role for the Ravens this year and looked good as a situational pass rusher in 2011. That being said, his pass rushing seems to come in bunches as opposed to a consistent level, with him registering three or less total pressures in eight regular season games. On top of that, there was little to Kruger’s game beyond his pass rushing skills. Take away the game against Kansas City, where he played well against the run, and you’re left with a player who very occasionally flashed a big play to blow up a run for a loss, without being a consistent all-around player. He wasn’t necessarily punished for it every time, but Kruger was guilty of losing contain far too often in the running game in 2012.
A big part of the Ravens’ defense in recent years has been their ability to set the edge in the running game and, while it looked like a big part of that was lost when Jarret Johnson bolted to San Diego, rookie Courtney Upshaw was sensational as a run defender in his rookie year. As Pete rightly pointed out, he was flat-out awful as a pass rusher, but then Johnson wasn’t much of a pass rusher in his time in Baltimore either. Suggs may never get back to his best after the Achilles injury he suffered before, and the bicep injury he suffered during, the season, but there’s no way that the Ravens are moving on from him anytime soon. Ultimately the loss of Kruger is something they have to replace, but that can be done by bringing in a pass-rush specialist via free agency or the draft, and at a much lower price than re-signing a player with his value at an all-time high like Kruger’s is.