OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Nine months ago, Patrick Queen wasn't thinking about taking over the spot once manned by Ray Lewis. He was wondering whether he would ever get on the field in LSU’s season opener.
Queen barely played in a 55-3 rout of Georgia Southern, the tough reality of losing the battle for a starting job. He wasn’t atop the depth chart for the second or third games, either, but his impressive play in a rotational role earned him a start in Week 4 when an injury forced some shuffling in the lineup.
From that moment, Queen didn’t just flash speed, instinct and playmaking ability on the field. He soared up NFL draft boards almost as rapidly as teammate Joe Burrow.
In November, Queen made the game-changing interception against Alabama. In January, he hounded Clemson’s backfield in the national title game with 2.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack, earning Defensive MVP honors. In April, he was selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 28 overall pick in the NFL draft.
“He’s not an entitled guy,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. "This is a guy that didn’t start for most of his career at LSU. And so, I think this transition to the NFL, that’s going to help him, I think, because it’s a difference coming up to this level of football, with really good players at every single position. It could be a challenge for some guys, and I think Patrick has kind of already undergone that challenge in some respects and he’s thrived.”
Queen is looking to solidify the middle of the Ravens’ defense, where Lewis and C.J. Mosley established Pro Bowl careers. He’s also trying to reward the team’s belief in him.
Based on his inexperience, Queen ranks among the biggest first-round risks in this year’s draft and in Ravens history. His 16 career starts are the fewest by any defender selected in the first round of the 2020 draft.
But Ravens officials don’t feel Queen is a gamble at all. When you consider history and his tape, they feel he has the makings of being a steal at the end of the first round.
"With a guy like Patrick, there’s not a rawness to his game,” director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. "When you take a guy who’s maybe not polished, then you’re having to project that the coaching, and the player's ability to process and learn, and develop the specifics of the position -- then you’re having to project more. With a guy like Patrick, you’re just projecting that he’s going to be even better. Like, next year he’d be a top-10 pick or a top-15 pick versus a top-28 pick.”
Few starts, few problems
Limited starting experience would suggest that player is more of a project than a prospect. Recent history indicates otherwise.
In the past five drafts, Queen is one of four linebackers selected in the first round who made 16 or fewer starts in their college careers, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. The other three have been impact players.
The Steelers’ T.J. Watt, who had 14 starts at Wisconsin, is a first-team All-Pro. The Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch, who had 14 starts at Boise State, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The Titans’ Rashaan Evans, who had 14 starts at Alabama, recorded 111 tackles last season.
How much will Queen’s lack of starts in college affect his readiness to line up in the NFL immediately?
"I don't really look at it as a big deal, anything can be fixed with studying," Queen said. "I'm a student of the game and I plan on asking for a lot of tips, a lot of pointers from those guys that have been there for a long time. I'm going to come in and really just be the best player that I can be.”
The Ravens’ selection of Queen has been universally applauded by NFL experts. He's considered one of the top value picks in the draft. According to ESPN’s draft projections, Queen has a 90% chance of being a starter and a 50% chance of reaching the Pro Bowl (sixth-highest among this year’s prospects).
But it’s an uncharacteristic pick for Baltimore in terms of playing time. Of the previous 25 first-round selected by the Ravens, just two started fewer than 20 games in college: linebacker Peter Boulware (1997) and wide receiver Travis Taylor (2000).
Where Queen fits the Ravens’ draft profile is his type of playing experience. He suited up in championship-level games under the bright lights of packed stadiums and national television. Ravens officials often say that kind of pressure tests a player and makes him less likely to be in awe of the NFL.
Queen certainly played his best in the biggest of games. In LSU’s final three games last season, against Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson, he combined for 21 tackles including five for loss.
"Those are some of the very best teams in college football, and he was one of the very best guys on the field in those games,” DeCosta said. "As you gain experience as a scout and as an evaluator, you get better at your job. And you're looking for specific things, and when you see it, you know you saw it. And that kind of makes your decision easy."
Tale of the tape
Queen had less tape than other top prospects because he had fewer starts, which would seem like a problem for a Ravens team that weighs what’s on film more than what happens at the scouting combine or pro day workouts. But it’s the tape that really convinced Baltimore to take Queen, who didn’t come onto the Ravens’ scouting radar until November.
In a recent film breakdown of the Ravens’ draft picks with reporters, Hortiz dissected a dozen plays to show how Queen demonstrated an awareness that exceeded that of a player who didn’t become a full-time starter until a month into his third season at LSU. On running plays, Queen read pulling offensive linemen and reacted right away to make the stop. In pass defense, he understood the use of leverage when playing man-to-man coverage and diagnosed route concepts when playing zone.
"You were like, ‘Wow, he's a 20-year-old kid who's showing this right now. What would he have been next year if he would have been another-year starter with 12 more, 14 more starts under his belt? How much more instinctive would he be?’” Hortiz said. "So, I think you project that out forward. He's a smart kid, he works his butt off, he loves the game and he's a great character kid. So, you say to yourself, ‘Man, as this guy gets experience in the NFL, he's just going to get better and better.’ We really think he's got a high ceiling and also a high floor. So, we're fired up to see what comes of him.”
With every clip, presented in order, Queen got faster and faster through the season. His speed jumped off the tape from the start. But as his reads got more precise, his reaction became quicker.
Hortiz summed up Queen’s improvement with two plays that spanned 63 days. In a Week 2 game against Texas, Queen didn’t get deep enough on his drop, which allowed a 15-yard touchdown pass. In Week 10 against Alabama, Queen was again in coverage, and this time, he intercepted Tua Tagovailoa because he got to the proper depth with more urgency by reading the quarterback’s eyes.
“I was watching the game live on TV, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a heck of a play,'” Hortiz said of Queen’s interception. “They showed it in like two or three different angles. You’re kind of like, ‘Wow, this kid has got some really good instincts, and he looked athletic doing it.’”
Respect for the roots
If you’re going to take a chance on a player early in the draft, it’s best to do it with an LSU defender.
Eight LSU defensive players drafted in the past 10 years have been selected to a Pro Bowl. That’s tied with Alabama for the most by any school in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"LSU has put out outstanding defensive talent in the NFL over last 10 years. That’s something we don’t take for granted,” DeCosta said. "It’s something we look at very closely. We think Patrick is going to be the next great LSU defensive player.”
It’s a good time to look at LSU, especially if you’re searching for your next defensive centerpiece. Two Pro Bowl middle linebackers (Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones) and a top-five pick from last year (Devin White) all played at LSU.
Queen praised Jones’ aggressiveness, Alexander’s energy and White’s outspoken nature.
"I'll take every little piece of their game and try to add it to mine to try to be a versatile player,” Queen said.
Hitting on Queen can elevate a team that has gone 19-3 under quarterback Lamar Jackson in the regular season but has failed to win a playoff game. After losing Mosley to free agency a year ago, Baltimore tried to patch that void with Patrick Onwuasor, Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort. The Ravens' defense finished No. 4 in the NFL last season, but it didn’t go unnoticed that Baltimore gave up a total of 550 yards rushing in its three losses, including 195 to Derrick Henry in a postseason defeat to the Tennessee Titans.
Finding a run-stopper behind recently acquired defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe became a priority. When Queen slid past New Orleans at No. 24 and Seattle at No. 27, the Ravens didn’t consider it a risk to draft him. DeCosta called it “a no-brainer."
"I think sometimes when you say ‘a need pick,’ there's an implication maybe that you reached a little bit or took him a little bit higher than you would have, except for the fact that it was a need,” DeCosta said. "And I think in this case, what was great about Patrick is not only was he a need -- meaning we need an inside linebacker -- but he was also very much the very best player on the board at that time for us. And so, when that happens, I think it's a great win for the organization."