OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Near his hometown in rural Louisiana, Baltimore Ravens rookie pass rusher Jaylon Ferguson was always one of the more quiet and courteous kids on the West Feliciana High School football team, coach Robb Odom said. But he also caused teammates to leave the field in tears on a regular basis.
“Jaylon beat our offensive linemen so badly in practice that they would cry,” Odom said. “He was just physically overpowering and he wouldn’t let up. It was every single play. He didn’t stop.”
In the Ravens’ locker room this week, Ferguson said he knew one player Odom was referencing. There was an offensive tackle named Drew. Ferguson considered Drew a close childhood friend with whom he shared a deep bond — yet he saw no problem overmatching his buddy on the football field, barreling past him day after day, snap after snap.
“It was like a life lesson,” Ferguson said. “You’re going to get knocked down over and over and over.”
It’s that ruthless side of Ferguson’s personality that the Ravens hope will bolster their quest for a championship. Many experts view Baltimore (9-2) as Super Bowl favorites entering Sunday’s matchup with the San Francisco 49ers (10-1), because quarterback Lamar Jackson, a balanced offense and a talented-filled secondary have led the path to seven straight wins.
If there’s one aspect of the team that could use a boost, that remains somewhat of a concerning question mark in the midst of an exception stretch, it’s the pass rush. Baltimore has totaled 25 sacks this season, tied for 24th out of 32 NFL teams.
Ferguson thinks he has the power — and the mentality — to transform the defense.
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The 49ers have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 11.8 percent of their dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL.
After veteran Pernell McPhee suffered a season-ending triceps injury Oct. 20, Ferguson stepped into a starting role and has become a fixture in the team’s defensive front.
The NCAA Division I all-time sacks leader, Ferguson can play in a variety of spots for the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale often allows him to rush the passer from the interior of the defensive line or sets him up on the edge, where he has the speed and muscle to beat top-tier offensive tackles the way he did for four years at Louisiana Tech.
Ferguson recorded his first NFL sack Nov. 17 against the Texans and piled up a career-high five tackles in Monday’s win over the Rams. Coaches feel like he’s ascending.
“I’ve been pleased with Jaylon Ferguson since he’s been here, and I keep telling you guys, ‘He’s on the come,’” Martindale said last week. “He’s on the come. Watch out. And continue to watch out, because it’s really all starting to click for him.”
And once things click, Ferguson said he can let his fiery side burn brighter.
Off the field, it’s easy to label Ferguson a laid-back, positive presence. He regularly shows off a toothy smile and wears thick-rimmed glasses around the Ravens’ team headquarters. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound football star is the first person in his family to graduate from college, and during high school, Odom said Ferguson spent extra time talking with teachers whenever progress reports showed his grade slipping below a B.
In adulthood, Ferguson’s life revolves around his two children. He has a 6-month-old daughter and a son who turns 2 on Saturday. Ferguson, who uses the nickname Sack Daddy, said his family provides the motivation he needs to morph from easygoing father to merciless pass rusher once he slides on shoulder pads.
“When I’m off the field, I’m just really, really calm, because I don’t see no reason to be riled up all the time,” Ferguson said. “On the field, I got people I can’t let down. That’s how I work. That’s how I eat. And I’ve got my kids now, so I’m not going to let nothing stop me from eating.”
— Jaylon Ferguson (@SackDaddy45) October 31, 2019
During high school, Ferguson’s drive came from the desire to create a career in football. Odom said Ferguson never wanted to play offense like most top-notch players, and instead preferred to use his overwhelming length and strength to wallop quarterbacks.
After games, opposing coaches would shake hands with Odom and say “we had no chance of stopping that kid.”
Ferguson spurned a few programs from power conferences to attend Louisiana Tech, a school in his home state. Odom said Ferguson felt he’d have the support and opportunity to graduate from Louisiana Tech while still pursuing an NFL future.
When defensive line coach Rick Petri joined the Bulldogs’ staff before the 2015 season, Ferguson was a redshirt freshman. Petri could sense that the kid from West Feliciana carried star potential. Many players with imposing size and natural skill like Ferguson can be reluctant to embrace the physical nature of football.
“What made Jaylon different is he loved the contact from Day 1,” Petri said.
Ferguson totaled a school-record 14.5 sacks as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, and in Petri’s mind, he continued to solidify himself as an NFL prospect during his junior year. Ferguson’s sack total dipped to seven that season, but Petri said he began playing within the team’s system more effectively.
He used the more sensitive side of his personality to take the time needed to understand the intricacies of the defense. Ferguson didn’t selfishly chase sacks when he could take on blockers and free space for a teammate, Petri said.
As a senior in 2018, Ferguson put all of his best qualities on display — the patience and motivation, the relentless and the understanding. He finished the year with 17.5 sacks, and his 45 career sacks he broke an NCAA record held by former Raven and Arizona State star Terrell Suggs.
Ferguson’s success didn’t translate into immediate production in the NFL. He landed in Baltimore as a third-round pick after providing aid to tornado victims in Ruston, Louisiana, the week of the draft. He was inactive for the first two games of the Ravens’ season, but more chances to see the field arose when the Ravens cut outside linebacker Tim Williams on Oct. 1.
Little by little, Ferguson’s playing time expanded until McPhee went down in Week 7. The Ravens decided not to make a trade or sign an established edge rusher; they instead widened Ferguson’s opportunity.
In most senses, he’s taken advantage. Ferguson still sees room to grow, and the Ravens can hold onto the belief that he’ll improve enough to give the team another productive pass rusher to pair with outside linebacker Matthew Judon. At the least, Ferguson is providing steady play that helps anchor Baltimore’s defense.
“He has gotten better every single week,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He still knows he has a long way to go, but the physicality, the heavy hands, the edge setting, the way he’s rushing the quarterback — Yes, I’d say he’s done a good job.”
When Ferguson uses his natural ability to push past an offensive lineman in games or practices these days, nobody is reduced to tears.
He still thinks about Drew from time to time, though.
“I think I helped him. He got better,” Ferguson said. “Actually, he played damn good for us.”
So why, Ferguson asked, would he feel bad about beating him every day at practice?