By Chris Schisler
The Baltimore Ravens got some bad news on the injury front out of their preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. According to reports, L.J. Fort tore his ACL and will be out for the entire 2021 season. How big of a deal is this for the Ravens? What do they do now? How does this affect the 53 man roster? Let’s break this down component of the story at a time.
1. How big of an injury is this for the Ravens?
In the big picture, this injury shouldn’t derail the Baltimore defense. Fort was a rotational player for the Ravens. He was a solid veteran linebacker, but he wasn’t projected to be a starter this season. Fort will be missed. It’s not a little deal, it’s just not a dealbreaker for the Ravens’ season.
Defensively, the Ravens lose some veteran leadership and are down to just three inside linebackers that are locked in for the 53 man roster. The Ravens have a young linebacker trio made up of Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, and Chris Board. For a 3-4 base defense that uses two inside linebackers three is playing it tight. To have a proper rotation of inside linebackers, another player is probably needed. We’ll get to the aftermath in the next part.
The defense loses a linebacker that had 35 solo tackles last year and 53 total tackles. Board is the senior member of the position group as an undrafted free agent from 2018. Queen and Harrison were 2020 NFL Draft selections of Eric DeCosta and the Ravens. The good news for the Ravens is that the preseason has given a very encouraging sample of the growth Queen and Harrison have made going into their second season.
Fort is also a loss on special teams. The Ravens are going to have to go with the next man up on that front. Losing Fort isn’t ideal. Let’s move on to what the Ravens should do now.
2. What do the Baltimore Ravens do now?
The Baltimore Ravens can go about this in a few different ways. It really depends on how many linebackers they absolutely need on the roster. If replacing L.J. Fort is a necessity to the coaching staff, Kristian Welch becomes the next man. He could go from the roster bubble to the fourth linebacker on the 53 man roster.
The Ravens could also replace Fort with a signing. When the Ravens signed Fort, they got a lot more from him than a lot of pundits thought they would. The Ravens are good at finding role players from free agency. One popular option is signing Patrick Onwuasor, a former Ravens linebacker. Onwuasor would come in with the advantage of knowing how to fit in Don Martindale’s defense. They may not go with Onwuasor, yet they have to at least consider it.
Don’t rule out the idea of the Ravens going into the regular season with just three inside linebackers. Queen isn’t going to come off the field much, he’s a three-down linebacker. The Ravens will spend plenty of time in sub-packages with more defensive backs on the field. The depth the Ravens have at safety could allow the purple and black to have what equates to an extra linebacker on the field. This route maximizes the speed and range of the second level of the defense.
3. How does this affect the 53 man roster?
The Ravens are a team with a ton of surplus talent on the defense. Specifically, the Ravens have a lot of defensive backs. Just like this could motivate the Ravens to keep an extra linebacker it could also give the Ravens to keep an extra safety. Let’s do an exercise here. Out of the following players who do you want to cut? Geno Stone, Nigel Warrior, Ar’Darius Washington, and Anthony Levine Sr. ? Exactly. They all have a case for a job in the regular season and parting with any of them is tough.
Defensive back is not the only position where a bubble player could theoretically benefit from Fort’s injury. The Ravens have good reason to stockpile offensive linemen. The Ravens have seen the injury bug hit their offensive line fairly hard this August. Players like Ben Bredeson and Trystan Colon could be on the roster bubble. The Ravens ideally use Tyre Philips as the swing tackle. Ben Cleveland has missed some time and having two more interior linemen who can play multiple positions isn’t a bad idea.
NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens: Projecting 53 man roster after 2 preseason games
It really boils down to whether or not the Ravens want four inside linebackers and stick to that number. The Ravens’ lack of depth at the position group may have been intentional. Fort was playing late in preseason games for the purpose of getting the defense through the exhibition games. Staying slim at inside linebacker allows the Ravens more spots elsewhere.
Martindale can work around this with the extra depth at defensive back. It’s not the only option on the menu, though it allows the Baltimore Ravens to keep their 53 best players on the roster.