By Ronald Toothe
In 2020, the Ravens filled a pressing need at middle linebacker by drafting a player who many considered the best at the position in Patrick Queen. Much more quietly, they also spent a third-round pick on Malik Harrison the following day. While Queen and his promising talent made most of the headlines last season, Harrison could be the one ready to make the biggest jump in 2021.
What we’ve seen so far
Malik Harrison first burst onto the scene as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2018, wherein his first season as a full-time starter he compiled 81 tackles. Harrison was a brick wall for Urban Meyer’s defense and translated that over to a similarly successful 2019 with 75 tackles, 16.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage.
Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller’s draft profile featured Harrison as a pro comparison to former Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower. Miller also said he was “a blast to watch and is a wrecking ball against the run game.”
It’s hard to argue, given performances like the ones he had at Penn State in 2019 and vs Northwestern in 2018. Perhaps most promising is that those biggest performances came when the lights were on bright. Big Ten championships, ranked match-ups, no stage was too big for Malik Harrison at Ohio State.
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Harrison’s success in one of the toughest conferences in college football has already begun to translate to the pros. In 2020 we started to see his potential as his playing time increased. In week 8 at Indianapolis, Harrison was arguably the best player on the Ravens defense with 11 tackles. Two weeks later vs Tennessee, he recorded another 7 tackles and his first career tackle for loss.
Harrison’s biggest contributions came around the line of scrimmage. Harrison was everywhere, whether it was blowing up a screen pass or shading down the line of scrimmage to blow up zone runs. The Ravens team lineage is loaded with hard-hitting middle linebackers, and Harrison is next in line.
What we’ll see going forward
The middle linebackers will be relied on heavily in 2021 to help jam up the run game. This plays right into the biggest aforementioned strengths of Harrison’s game. The interior defensive line is still performing at a high level, but father time is undefeated. Calais Campbell is in the twilight of his career, and Brandon Williams is in the last year of his contract. Derek Wolfe re-signed earlier this off-season as well, but he’s no spring chicken either (with all due respect). Harrison taking a step forward this season will make the workload much more bearable for those older veterans.
Despite re-signing L.J. Fort earlier this off-season, the flashes we’ve seen have already warranted Harrison taking the bulk of the reps alongside Queen. Fort is a great rotational veteran to have, but Harrison is the future. His skill set will cause nightmares for opposing backs.
There are of course improvements still to be made in Harrison’s game. He’s never been known as a natural when it comes to dropping back in the pass. Another year under Wink Martindale’s watchful eye could certainly help in that department though, as could his variety of different schemes. Given the massive talent the Ravens have in the secondary, those deficiencies are easier to mask for now.
It’s no secret that the Ravens’ Super Bowl window is open now. They have one of the most electric talents in football at quarterback and numerous elite players around him. The 2020 Buccaneers defense surged towards a title thanks largely to the studs in the middle of their defense.
The Ravens might just have their own version of that tandem in Harrison and Queen. If Malik Harrison can take yet another step forward in 2021, Baltimore’s championship dreams only become closer to reality.