John Harbaugh knows the Baltimore Ravens got a potential steal when they unexpectedly found Trenton Simpson available in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft, but the long-tenured head coach has admitted the Clemson inside linebacker is even better than he thought after watching tape.
Harbaugh explained to former Ravens’ defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, during an exclusive interview for The 33rd Team, how Simpson is “bigger than you think, and also, a little more nuanced athletically than I thought after I watched the tape.”
The Ravens took Simpson with the 86th pick, but Harbaugh admitted he wasn’t a “guy we expected to draft. I mean really wasn’t, you know, a need for us.”
Those comments are a reference to the Ravens already being strong at the position thanks to Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. The latter had his fifth-year option declined, and Queen might struggle to convince the Ravens he merits a place beyond this season, with Harbaugh revealing Simpson is a “little more fluid than I thought he was going to be. A little more knack. A little more instinct in there.”
Draft Steal Spells Trouble for Incumbent
Queen has tried to downplay the significance of the Ravens not picking up his option. Instead, the starter is content to stay “focused on right now,” per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley.
He may be bullish about his prospects, but Queen’s status is in jeopardy if Simpson lives up to the billing. There’s every chance he will after the 21-year-old logged a career-high 72 tackles during his final year with the Tigers.
More than numbers, Simpson has impressed Harbaugh with his work ethic. Harbaugh told Pagano, “Chuck, all he wants to do is go home and study football.”
That application will be needed if Simpson is going to take meaningful snaps away from Queen, who formed a terrific tandem with Smith last season. Ideally, the Ravens will have three destructive, second-level playmakers for defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to unleash from anywhere along the front seven.
Surprise Pick Makes Linebacker Ravens’ Strength
Trading with the Chicago Bears to acquire Smith midway through last season was the first step toward making inside linebacker a Ravens’ strength again. It worked because Smith helped 2020 first-rounder Queen raise the level of his game.
Queen logged career-highs for tackles with 117, along with five sacks. His pressure numbers jumped because of the way Macdonald used Queen and Smith in blitz packages.
One of the Ravens’ favorite ploys was to put both in the A-gaps either side of a center. A great example of how effective this blitz design was came against AFC North rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers, per Ravens.com Editorial Director Ryan Mink.
Adding Simpson to this mix is more bad news for opposing quarterbacks. Especially since putting pressure on the pocket was a feature of Simpson’s game at the collegiate level.
He proved his credentials getting after quarterbacks by recording 13 sacks in three years, including this one against Pickett, during the latter’s days at Pitt, highlighted by Luca Sartirana of Mike Farrell Sports.
Simpson rushing from the outside while Queen and Smith blitz the middle, will cause havoc for opposing blocking schemes. It can also help Macdonald cover up the Ravens’ lack of depth at edge-rusher, where David Ojabo and Odafe Oweh figure to start, but veterans Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul remain free agents.
Putting all three of his gifted middle linebackers on the field together in certain packages would also keep offenses guessing about pressure and coverage. Like Smith and Queen, Simpson has the range to be a factor in both phases.
He’s been given the big build-up by Harbaugh, while Queen’s uncertain contract status only adds to the expectations for Simpson’s rookie year. If he meets those expectations, the Ravens will boast the best set of linebackers in football in 2023.