Jaylon Ferguson remembers the moment he was most awestruck as a rookie. It was the night the Ravens hosted the New England Patriots in primetime and Ferguson was making his first NFL start.
Ferguson felt the jitters - big time.
"I was like, 'Oh, it's Tom Brady and the Patriots,'" Ferguson said on "The Lounge Podcast". "This year, everybody's like a nameless, faceless opponent. That's the mentality I'm taking to the season."
The talented outside linebacker expects to be more of a playmaker in Year 2 after getting 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a rookie. He started nine games last season following Pernell McPhee's triceps injury, and that experience accelerated Ferguson's learning process.
With McPhee fully recovered from his injury, he and Ferguson are expected to share reps at outside linebacker opposite Matthew Judon, who led Baltimore with 9.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. The better Ferguson plays, the bigger his role will become. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale saw Ferguson's growth as the season progressed, and he sees a player more prepared to tap into his talent.
"He made tremendous strides last year," Martindale said. "The biggest part, if you remember me telling you, it was about halfway through the year when he finally got in, what he felt, was the best shape that he's been in. He's come in this year at that type of condition. His body has changed. He's a year older.
"All those second-year and third-year players start to get that old man dad strength. They've had a year away from college football and they can really train and just focus on themselves and not the Combine; not going to this visit, that visit, and just focus on themselves, and he's done that."
A third-round pick in 2019, Ferguson had a legendary career at Louisiana Tech, setting the FBS record for career sacks with 45, one more than Ravens legend Terrell Suggs had during his career at Arizona State. His propensity for sacks earned Ferguson the nickname "Sack Daddy", and at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, he has the potential to become a game-changing pass rusher at the NFL level.
McPhee has become Ferguson's most influential mentor, schooling him on the work ethic of recent outside linebackers that have set a high standard in Baltimore like Suggs, Za'Darius Smith and Judon. Ferguson wants to repay McPhee for his support by helping him win a Super Bowl.
"McPhee very clearly said he came back for a ring," Ferguson said. "I love 'Phee. Everything I'm into this year, every moment, every play, every snap is to get 'Phee that ring. He's a Raven. He embodies everything a Raven is. That's a high standard to live up to."
Ferguson visited his native Louisiana during the offseason, but spent most of his time in the Baltimore area, training, social distancing and working out occasionally with teammates Justice Hill and Otaro Alaka.
Ferguson has the strength to bull rush his way to the quarterback, but he's working to expand his repertoire of moves, or as Ferguson puts it, "add more sauce" to his game. He wants to be a complete outside linebacker who is strong defending the run, not just a pass rush specialist. He also knows his "Sack Daddy" reputation will have to be earned in the NFL.
"That was college," Ferguson said. "This is the next level. Let me do what I did in college on this level. Until then, I don't really have much talk."
After the Ravens acquired defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe during the offseason, it's easy to understand why Ferguson was elated. That's two additional pass rushers for opponents to worry about, which should create more favorable matchups for Ferguson.
"That guarantees me a one-on-one," Ferguson said. "I'm so happy."
When Ferguson was a freshman, he met Campbell by chance as he was walking along Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Louisiana Tech was in town for a bowl game, and it was a thrill for Ferguson to meet an established NFL star. Now that they are teammates, Ferguson does a pretty good imitation of Campbell's deep voice, but he has never reminded Campbell of the first time they met.
"He ain't going to remember that," Ferguson said chuckling.
However, Ferguson wants to make plays this season that Campbell won't forget. The Ravens have had success developing young outside linebackers and Ferguson wants to be next in line. He's no longer an unsure rookie, and he is confident that playing regularly last year will benefit him greatly.
"It will help me a lot," Ferguson said. "Especially this year with not being any preseason games? I don't have to worry about trying to get the jitters off or getting nervous. I can focus on what I need to focus on. Hopefully when my career winds up I'll be one of those great outside linebackers from Baltimore everyone talks about."