Young Ravens linebackers will look to Roquan Smith for guidance

OWINGS MILLS — The dynamic of the Ravens’ defense changed when they acquired inside linebacker Roquan Smith in October 2022.

The team later awarded him with a five-year, $100 million contract, which made him the highest-paid inside linebacker in league history.

Smith could have several young starters playing beside him next season, and they will look to him for leadership — a role that he has embraced.

“Roquan Smith has made a sea change on our defense,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Roquan kind of just tied it all together. He made it all kind of fit and made sense. We were doing the same things on defense that we were doing [before] Roquan got here, and we were doing them pretty well.

“We were getting better as the [2022] season went along, but everybody saw it. When he got here, it changed. He made everybody better around him, and it’s only gotten better since.”

Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen (6) celebrates with linebacker Roquan Smith (18) along the sidelines during the game against the Atlanta Falcons at M&T Bank Stadium. By Tommy Gilligan-USA Today Sports

Harbaugh and his fellow assistant coaches said Smith set a positive example for his teammates, underscored by fellow inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s Pro Bowl performance in 2023.

Smith and Queen formed the NFL’s only duo to each post at least 130 tackles last season. Smith’s 158 tackles marked the NFL’s sixth most, while Queen’s 133 ranked 16th.

Queen has parlayed that performance into a big payday in free agency. He has a market value of five years, $92.6 million, which is likely out of the Ravens’ price range.

As a result, Trenton Simpson, who was drafted in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft from Clemson, will likely get the opportunity to start if the team does not re-sign Queen.

While Simspon had a limited role as a rookie, he showed the potential of his play-making ability in the 2023 regular-season finale against the Steelers, finishing with five tackles, including his first career sack. He also had two tackles for a loss and played a season-high 26 defensive snaps.

After the game, he said that Smith helped him get ready for his first extensive playing time.

“[Smith] was just like, ‘You’ve got an opportunity; you’ve got to make the most of it.’ And I mean, like he says, ‘Just go out there and play,'” Simpson said “It’s just football, at the end of the day, and they brought me here for a reason, so just go out there and display my God-given talent and just make the most of my opportunity. I feel like, today, I’m satisfied with my performance and have just got to continue to keep getting better on defense and special teams.” 

The Ravens also could have several young players at outside linebacker getting more playing time because veterans Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy are eligible for free agency.

Tavius Robinson, who played  29 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie fourth-round pick, is poised to play a bigger role in 2024. Undrafted rookie Malik Hamm made the team out of training camp but spent the year on injured reserve with an ankle injury and also will push for more playing time.

Those players will look to Smith for guidance. Harbaugh is confident that Smith will answer the call.

“Roquan, love him. I love him,” Harbaugh said. “[He’s] one of the best.”

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