Pass rush was an uncharacteristic weak point for the Baltimore Ravens in 2021. A defense depleted by Matthew Judon signing for the New England Patriots in free agency only sacked opposing quarterbacks 34 times.
General manager Eric DeCosta didn’t ignore the problem during the 2022 NFL draft. Instead, he used a second-round pick to take David Ojabo off the board, despite the player tearing his Achilles at Michigan’s pro day back in March.
There are also some injury concerns regarding last season’s sack leader, Tyus Bowser, as well as Ojabo’s high school teammate Odafe Oweh. The Ravens need insurance on the edges, so DeCosta took a clever, risk-free approach on Monday, May 2.
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He used the UFA tender for veteran pass-rusher Justin Houston on the same day the Kansas City Chiefs did the same with Melvin Ingram, per ESPN’s Field Yates:
The move gives the Ravens options with a 33-year-old who logged 4.5 sacks on the team a year ago and could at least be a stop-gap until the younger edge defenders are up to full speed.
Cost-Effective Move a Win-Win for Houston, Ravens
Using the unrestricted free agent tender is a rare move, but it can mean a win-win situation for both player and team. That’s how it looks for Houston and the Ravens, with Fields breaking down what the terms of the tender mean for each party:
Collecting compensatory draft picks has become a happy habit for Ravens. DeCosta accrued three for this year’s draft, a third-rounder and two fourth-round selections, per Clifton Brown of the team’s official site.
Brown also noted how “the Ravens have received more compensatory picks (55) than any NFL team since the compensatory formula began in 1994.”
DeCosta used the first of those picks, the 100th overall, as part of the trade with the Arizona Cardinals that sent wide receiver Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown to the NFC West. The deal also netted the Ravens an extra first-round pick.
There won’t be many complaints from DeCosta if Houston helps land another of those precious comp picks this year. That’s not to say the Ravens couldn’t use Houston’s expertise along their own front seven.
The rush end could return, and Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus detailed what Houston would earn under this tender during a second season in Baltimore:
The $2.2825 million figure Spielberger mentioned is well within the Ravens’ means under the salary cap. Current projections have the team with $7,083,329 worth of room, per Spotrac.com.
There’s every chance Houston returns to the Ravens. He’s still on the market and coming off the second leanest season of his career.
Suitors could be in short supply for a 30-something with declining production. As Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith put it when discussing Ingram’s situation, a player under this tender who doesn’t find a new home by July 22 has to stay with the team he suited up for last season.
That could be a silver lining for the Ravens, who should get more from Houston with a few slight tweaks to the system.
Houston’s Value to the Ravens Can Increase in 2022
Houston’s struggles last season could be explained, in part, by some struggles with the scheme. The blitz-happy, hybrid 3-4 favored by former defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale didn’t quite suit Houston, despite the latter playing outside linebacker for the Chiefs for eight prolific seasons.
Houston left KC in 2019 and spent two years as a 4-3 defensive end with the Indianapolis Colts. Schematic semantics aside, his responsibilities were generally streamlined in Indy, where he could simply put his hand down and rush.
That might be all Houston is asked to do for the Ravens this year, with Mike MacDonald taking over play-calling duties from Martindale. MacDonald ran the defense for Michigan last year, where ends Aidan Hutchinson and Ojabo caused havoc.
MacDonald’s presence no doubt encouraged the Ravens to take a chance on Ojabo. The latter is recovering from a serious injury, despite NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport offering a potentially encouraging timetable for a possible return:
DeCosta is also “optimistic” about Ojabo’s chances of seeing the field as a rookie, according to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. No matter how long the Ravens have to wait, their pass rush will remain suspect without Ojabo.
Especially when Bowser, who had seven sacks last season, had surgery to repair a torn Achilles back in January. Oweh also underwent a procedure, in his case foot surgery, although head coach John Harbaugh believes last season’s first-round pick will be ready for training camp.
Having Houston back in the fold would at least give MacDonald a fully healthy edge-rusher to work with while he begins implementing his version of the defense. Houston is past his best, but he’s still an experienced player with 102 sacks on his CV.