After a strong rookie season in which he finished second on the Baltimore Ravens in sacks with five and had several splash plays, expectations for 2021 first-round outside linebacker Odafe Oweh were very high heading into his second year in the league.
Typically, year two is when most players that aren’t coming off injuries make their most significant strides and biggest leaps in production. They go from training for the combine and flying across the country for top 30 visits as prospects to being a part of a full off-season training program as second-year pros.
Oweh was getting some dark horse buzz for Defensive Player of the Year odd ahead of the 2022 season but his sack and overall impactful plays totals dipped in year two. Although he had several close calls and where he had opposing quarterbacks dead to rights or even within his grasp, Oweh still finished with three sacks in 17 regular season games and added another in the team’s lone playoff contest per Pro Football Reference.
He views what some will describe as his sophomore slump as more of a “learning season” whose lesson of which he intends to take to heart and hopes will help him finally take off and break out in his third season.
“A lot of times I was close, but it lets me know that when it does click and when everything goes how I want it to, I’m going to soar. You’ve got to look at it that way, not the negative way. So, that’s how I view it.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald understands how falling well short of expectations and his own aspirations might be extremely disappointing for any player let alone one of Oweh’s pedigree, ability, and draft status.
“I’m sure any time you’re not getting the production that you want or expect and your personal goals, that’s probably a source of frustration,” he said. “But I look back at last year… we’re putting together the teach tapes and things… and we’re saying, ‘Hey, man, this guy is doing a lot of good stuff for us’.”
In the second half of the season down the final stretch, Oweh started turning up the heat and finding more success as a pass rusher once Macdonald started deploying him as both an outside and interior presence. He recorded two of his three sacks after Week 12 and recorded 1.5 sacks in back-to-back games with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I thought he really caught his stride at the end of the year, Macdonald said. “And the sacks, I just really believe they’ll come.”
While Oweh wasn’t forthcoming with his specific personal goals for the 2023 season, he did share that “it’s definitely to be dominate and just help our defense to be the best thing that we can be this year.”
For players that are former first-round picks who don’t truly break out or at least build off strong rookie campaigns in their second seasons, year three is pivotal because the team will have to decide whether to pick up their fifth-year option in the ensuing offseason.
Depending on the position and its value, teams are often less reluctant to exercise them because it means that their salary for the final year of the deal would be fully guaranteed.
Even if a former top pick has the best season of their career to date in year three and clearly has a bright future ahead, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen was their first-round pick in 2020, has never missed a game or start, and is coming off his most impressive season in which he recorded career-highs total tackles (117), sacks (five), interceptions (two), and quarterback hits (14) per Pro Football Reference.
He was already on his way to becoming the complete player at the position that the team envisioned when they drafted him but took his game to an even higher level once he joined forces with First-Team All-Pro Roquan Smith in the second half of the year.
Despite all that, the Ravens declined his fifth-year option meaning that he is heading into the final year of his rookie deal although general manager Eric DeCosta recently said they’d like to sign him to an extension at some point.
Oweh knows what is at stake and has been putting in the work all offseason to get himself in the best shape and refine his craft so that he can finally break out and realized his potential.
“I feel like Year 3, it’s a year where you had a good year the first year, second year, guys know who you are…but Year 3, ‘Alright, you know some of my moves but now I’ve got more moves for you,'” [space] he said. “Year 3 is a year where you probably tie it all in together.”
Areas of Improvement After Self Reflection
Oweh didn’t just mull over missed opportunities when he rewatched his 2022 tape nor does he want to just forget. The athletically gifted 24-year-old would much rather reflect and learn from his shortcomings so that he can learn from them and adapt his game accordingly for future success.
“No, I never forget. I don’t forget,” Oweh said. “I use it as kind of motivation. I didn’t really take a lot of offseason. I went straight to the gym, just trying to get strong, because I know there’s no real offseason. As a competitor, you remember things that you’ve got to work on; you remember the things you missed on, so you can bounce back for the next year.”
He broke down some specific areas of improvement that caused him to miss out on some opportunities to bring down or at least disrupt the opposing teams’ quarterbacks.
“A lot of times I would get off the block, but I was kind of off balance, so when I got to the QB, I wasn’t taking a straight-line shot,” Oweh said. “Then also up-field shoulder; there were a lot of times where I missed because of the up-field shoulder, too. [It’s] little things like that.
“There were times when I was there, but my concentration maybe wasn’t there, and I could have gotten it [the sack]. There are guys that were in the situation that still made those plays. So, it’s not an excuse, but I know where I’m at now, and I know what I can do now.”
Ravens New Defensive Coach is Already Receiving High Praise
The changes and additions that the team made to their coaching staff this offseason are arguably going to prove just as crucial and pivotal in 2023 and beyond as any roster transaction that was made outside of inking quarterback Lamar Jackson to a long-term deal.
One of the most notable new faces on head coach John Harbaugh’s staff is outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith who earned the nickname ‘Dr. Rush’ thanks to his decades of experience as a pass rush specialist coach and consultant.
He has worked with and trained some of the game’s best interior and edge rushers and will be responsible for the development of Oweh and second-year pro David Ojabo who is also poised for a breakout season after showing flashes in limited action as a rookie after he recovered from a torn Achilles.
“He’s a guru,” Ojabo said. “He’s just bringing [out] the best side of us, and he brings a lot of energy. [He] lets us be ourselves, lets us kind of dance off the ball. And I’m really excited just to see how our development comes.”
Unlike many coaches at the professional level, Smith is a former NFL player himself who was a productive pass rusher in his own era from 1992-2000 where he recorded 58.5 career sacks in 125 games with two different teams per PFR.
His background as a successful player turned coach helps him relate better to current and prospective players who value his experience and wisdom.
“Working with Chuck, he’s giving us the insight that a lot of guys – me in particular – haven’t had,” Oweh said. “A lot of my coaches, they’re great coaches but they haven’t really played the position. He’s played the position, he’s trained a lot of guys that played the position at a high level. I’m getting little tidbits that I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten in past years.”
Macdonald didn’t know him much outside of his reputation prior to his hiring and is excited for the impact he can have on the team’s young and veteran defenders in the trenches.
“He’s been great, and he’s added a lot of value to that room,” he said. “Him and [assistant head coach/defensive line coach Anthony] Weaver are working great together, [defensive quality control] Matt [Robinson], those guys. It’s really cool how they’re blending the skills between both positions. Getting it taught on the field and the guys are jacked up. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s an exciting time this time of year.”
Smith will be instrumental in helping both Oweh and Ojabo achieve their goals of potentially developing into the most prolific passing-rushing tandem that the city and franchise have ever seen.
“We just want to show Baltimore a different thing that they haven’t seen necessarily,” Oweh said. “We know that there’s a real opportunity right here, a real great story coming from where we both come from, being together, starting football late, soaring and having trials, tribulations, beating that. We know the opportunity we have. We want to be those guys for Baltimore.”
The last dynamic pass-rushing duo that the Ravens had was Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil who combined for 48.5 sacks from 2013-2014 that included 29 in 2014 alone per Pro Football Reference.
Those two were seasoned veterans in the later stages of their careers at that point whereas Oweh and Ojabo are just scratching the surface of their immense talent and ready to thrive together as they did back in high school at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey.
“We’ve been crafting all offseason because we’ve got big goals,” Ojabo said.