Ravens rookie Odafe Oweh has ‘infinite’ potential; to reach it, he’s asked for help

JONAS SHAFFER
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh (99) celebrates his fumble recovery in the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Baltimore. Also seen is linebacker Justin Houston (50). (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

He had said before his first game that the goal was to win, so after he did not, after Odafe Oweh and the Baltimore Ravens returned home with a Week 1 loss and a target on their back, he made time for more practice, this time on his own.

“This is your profession now,” Oweh had explained, “so what you’ve got to do is what you’ve got to do.” And what the rookie outside linebacker had to do Friday afternoon, just four days after he’d recorded his first NFL sack, just 15 minutes after the week’s last practice had ended, was head back out onto the field. A long work week was getting even longer.

As passersby looked on and Ravens officials tried out free agents on a nearby field, Oweh drilled on a pass-rush sled, honing his technique, the brilliant possibilities of his career slowly turning into probabilities. Hard work had taken him from two years of varsity football to the first round of the NFL draft. Smart work would take him to rarefied air, to Pro Bowls, to the levels his mentors in Baltimore have already reached and now insist he reach himself.

It is not hard to imagine what Oweh can become. He has already shown so much. In his NFL debut, he was the Ravens’ most productive pass rusher. On Sunday, he was their most impactful defender, helping to force two turnovers, including the decisive fourth-quarter fumble in a prime-time win over the Kansas City Chiefs. “He’s well on his way,” coach John Harbaugh said.

On Wednesday, Oweh was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Teammates see the potential for so much more. Outside linebacker Justin Houston has compared Oweh to a video game character. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike said he’s “built like a cyborg.” Defensive end Calais Campbell said that with the combined wisdom of the Ravens’ locker room, “there’s no way that he’s going to be able to fail.”

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Odafe Oweh looks on during pre-game warm-ups before an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

When the latest hype is relayed to him in an interview, Oweh is almost embarrassed, smiling bashfully and speaking softly in his deep voice. He appreciates what others see in his future. He is happier to have two stars shaping it. Because for as rare as Oweh’s talent might be, his star tutors’ credentials are even more precious: a combined 189½ sacks, 236 appearances and 10 Pro Bowl selections.

“Obviously, we’re all men here, so at the end of the day, what we do and what we don’t do is up to the person that’s doing it,” Oweh said recently. “But I obviously feel like guys like Justin [Houston] and Calais, they put it upon themselves to really try to push us, really try to make sure we max out everything that we can be.”

Getting help: Oweh did not get here without help. At New Jersey’s prestigious Blair Academy, coach Jim Saylor convinced a 16-year-old Oweh to play football for the first time. At Penn State, he learned from standout edge rushers Shareef Miller, Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, all draft picks themselves. They schooled him on technique, taught him how to play fast.

It wasn’t until he arrived in Baltimore, though, that he found his “Yoda.” Houston, signed in late July to a one-year deal, “knows everything,” Oweh said. So when Houston stayed late after one draining training camp practice to get a few more repetitions in, Oweh and fellow rookie outside linebacker Daelin Hayes tagged along. Soon it became a regular group outing, one Jedi Master training two Padawans in the ways of the Force.

“I try to ask him questions about different sets, how to approach that, how to attack that, and he’ll have the answer right away,” Oweh said. “I really appreciate that because, like I said, I’m new to the game, so I’m trying to pick up something different every single time. I try to work with him after practice — hands, just learning, learning stuff and picking every little thing. With film, too, how to take care of your body – just that vet mentality, being a pro and everything.”

“When I say they ask every question known to man,” Houston said of Oweh and Hayes, “they’re asking every question.”

When Houston first met Oweh, he could only ever remember seeing someone who looked like him in his son’s “Madden” game. “You’re the created player,” Houston recalled telling Oweh: 6 feet 5, 251 pounds, sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, long arms, explosive strength. Ravens outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins raved to defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale that Oweh’s pro day in March was “the best workout that he’s ever seen live. Ever.”

Showing rare versatility: The only limit to Oweh’s use so far has been the Ravens’ imagination. In the preseason, he helped out as a gunner on the punt team. In Week 1, he lined up everywhere along the defensive front, from a three-technique (over the opposing guard’s outside shoulder) to a wide-nine (over the opposing tight end’s outside shoulder, or a few yards wide of the nearest tackle). Oweh’s first sack since his 2019 season at Penn State came after he spun free of Las Vegas Raiders tackle Alex Leatherwood on a three-man rush and chased down quarterback Derek Carr.

On Sunday night, he needed only to hit Patrick Mahomes to blunt the Chiefs’ momentum. After lining up wide of Travis Kelce in the slot, then interrupting the All-Pro tight end’s release at the snap, Oweh swiveled to face the pocket, slipped past center Creed Humphrey and grabbed Mahomes by his knees as he tried, in vain, to throw to Kelce. Fifteen minutes after forcing Mahomes’ first September interception, Oweh eased his way into Kansas City’s backfield, punched the ball loose from running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, then covered the fumble himself.

“A huge impact,” Harbaugh said of Oweh after the 36-35 win. “We don’t win the game without the way he played.”

Campbell a mentor: When Calais Campbell arrived in the NFL 13 years ago, there weren’t a lot of edge rushers who looked like him, either. Success, though, came slowly for the 6-8, 300-pound Miami star. In his rookie year with the Cardinals, Campbell finished with two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit and no sacks in 16 games.

He takes pride in shepherding young careers in Baltimore because he remembers how much the veterans in Arizona meant to his own. Defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, a Pro Bowl selection the year before Campbell was drafted, “really pushed me and challenged me a lot,” Campbell recalled. In 2009, their second year together, Campbell and Dockett combined for 16 sacks. Over Campbell’s next seven seasons with the Cardinals, he never finished with fewer than five sacks, and he had double-digit quarterback hits in all but one year.

“I take great pride in keeping the game strong and just trying to educate the young guys on the things I’ve learned throughout my career,” Campbell said. “I have a lot of experiences that I feel like I can try to use to motivate, teach and help the young guys grow. We have a lot of talented young guys who I spend a lot of time with. Hopefully, they become the greats in this game.”

Getting top grades: Through two weeks, Oweh is well past the “project” state of his development, as Wilkins said he would be. According to Pro Football Focus, Oweh is the NFL’s highest-graded rookie edge rusher and has the second-most quarterback pressures among first-year players, behind only former Nittany Lions teammate Micah Parsons.

Oweh’s urgency has impressed coaches — “Every rep matters, every day matters,” Wilkins said earlier this month — and it has kept him returning to the defense’s veterans, questions on his mind. They have reminded Oweh to focus on the little things: body language, alignment, hand placement. They have told him to study not only how he practices but also how opposing linemen play, probing both for weaknesses.

“Making sure you’re dotting all your i’s,” Oweh explained, “and crossing all your t’s.”

Trying to realize his promise: There is still a lot more of Oweh’s career to write. When your potential is “infinite,” as Campbell said Oweh’s was during training camp, so is your room for improvement. It is an immense burden, one Campbell and Houston and the Ravens have been eager to share.

Ultimately, though, greatness becomes a solitary pursuit, just one man working on a drill after a long week of practice. The Ravens have shown Oweh his promise. He said it’s up to him to realize it. “I’m just trying to fulfill everything I can, and what I should, be.”