As Ravens OLB Odafe Oweh breaks out, he says he’s ‘still very much in the developmental stage’

Patrick Queen knows this path. He walked it a year ahead of his Ravens teammate, Odafe Oweh.

You arrive in a hail of acclaim reserved for a first-round draft pick, possessed of sublime physical tools but relatively untutored in the finer points of your craft. Your early performances speak to your gifts and your fierce desire but also to that lack of polish. The same people who feted you turn to judging you harshly, forgetting that even the most optimistic scouts said you were not a finished product.

Queen lived through the heights and depths of this cycle before he broke out last season. Now, he’s watching Oweh, written off as a failed pick by detractors, enjoy his moment of sweet, year-three release.

“Everybody loves him now,” Queen said Tuesday, with a subtext of I told you so.

Perhaps it was an offseason of healthy preparation. Perhaps it was the arrival of a new outside linebackers coach, Chuck Smith, who happens to be one of the world’s leading teachers of pass rush as art. Perhaps this is simply the time when Oweh — a serious student in addition to a freaky blend of speed, length and strength — was meant to come into his own.

“It’s probably a mixture,” the 24-year-old outside linebacker said.

Regardless of the explanation, Oweh has broken out over the Ravens’ past five games, a stretch he capped with a career-high seven pressures and a sack in the team’s 34-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Odafe, he worked incredibly hard at it, and he still on the ascend,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s getting better all the time, and I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface yet about what kind of player he can be as a pass rusher, on run defense, all of it.”

The story of Oweh’s first two seasons in Baltimore was one of stops and starts.

As a rookie, he forced the fumble that clinched an elusive victory over the Kansas City Chiefs but finished the season on the shelf because of a foot injury. He appeared unblockable in camp the next summer, with normally understated defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald saying he expected Oweh to become a “dominant player.” Instead, his sacks and pressure rate dropped slightly in Year 2 as he failed to stack standout performances. When it was over, he was asked if offseason shoulder surgery had hampered his development. “I wouldn’t say hampered,” he replied. “But I didn’t have an offseason.”

Oweh hinted at a coming breakout with four pressures and two sacks in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Bengals. But when would good health and sharpened technique align for the guy who’d set the NFL scouting combine ablaze with his 4.39-second time in the 40-yard dash?

He’s answering that question before our eyes.

By several metrics, Oweh is an elite pass rusher right now. He’s top 10 among edge defenders (who have played at least 100 snaps against the pass) in both pass rush productivity and pass rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus, sharing a neighborhood with luminaries such as DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys, Maxx Crosby of the Las Vegas Raiders and Trey Hendrickson of the Bengals.

What about the consistency that eluded Oweh in his first two seasons? Well, PFF has graded him the best pass rusher among the Ravens’ edge defenders in five of the seven games he’s played this year, and that’s with veterans Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy producing strong seasons. Oweh has finished with at least three pressures in each of the six full games he has played. He’s pressuring quarterbacks on 18% of his pass-rush snaps, per PFF, up from 9.9% in 2022 and 11.6% in 2021.

He’s an every-week problem for opposing offensive coordinators.

Given Oweh’s form, the $7.2 million projected cost of his fifth-year option could be a relative bargain for the Ravens after this season as they look to maintain a cost-effective roster around franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“We already knew what he was capable of. Obviously, he was getting there as a rookie. [In] the second year, he was doing a hell of a job; he just couldn’t finish,” Queen said. “It takes time for those things — just slowing the game down for him — and [he’s] just going out there now and balling. … I’m really proud of him, really happy for him.”

It’s a sentiment shared by teammates and coaches throughout the organization, who know how badly Oweh wants to be great.

“He’s put the work in,” said cornerback Brandon Stephens, who was part of the 2021 draft class with Oweh and shares the same agency. “I see him putting work in up in Austin in the offseason. I always tell him, ‘Just stay focused. Nobody cares about what you did last week. What are you going to do this week?’”

Stephens is preaching to the choir.

“I feel like there’s still so much I can get better at, in all aspects of my game because I started [playing football] late,” Oweh said. “The place where I got drafted, obviously, it required a lot of expectations early, but I’m still very much in the developmental stage. I still have a lot to prove.”

Oweh famously went without a sack in his last year at Penn State, where he asked to use his power to stuff the run before he swam upfield to find the quarterback. He’s a noticeably more sophisticated pass rusher than he was as a rookie, with a deeper bag of spins and hesitations to capitalize on his rare mobility.

“The one-on-one moves have really smoothed out,” Harbaugh said. “[The] spin move has smoothed out, not perfect a lot of times, but he has four or five moves — two or three go-to moves and probably four or five moves overall that he uses pretty regularly. That’s a big addition to what he was before, more just kind of a straight speed rusher when he came here.”

Oweh had known for years he needed to deepen his bag, and in Smith, who earned the nickname “Dr. Rush” as a private coach to some of the league’s top sack artists, he found an ideal tutor.

Even when he has played well, Oweh knows Smith will be waiting with a list of nitpicks when they meet to review his game tape.

“He always harps on me every week on the little details, because if you have success a lot, you might forget about the little things that you were doing just to get to that spot,” Oweh said, grinning. “It gets annoying sometimes because he’s always harping on me about the little things. But I’m really grateful for him always staying on me for stuff like that.”

In addition to the detail work, Oweh has repeatedly credited Smith — who posted 58 1/2 sacks in nine NFL seasons — for teaching him to think like an elite pass rusher.

“It’s just a mentality of what you’re looking at and what your approach is in your rush,” he said. “Just always having a plan before the ball is snapped — that really helped me.”


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