For 17 seasons, Ray Lewis was a mainstay in the middle of the Ravens defense. The future Hall of Famer could do everything in his prime -- run, hit, cover and blitz. That’s why the inside linebacker rarely took snaps off.
Now, as the Ravens look to fill the void and choose another starter to replace free-agent departure Dannell Ellerbe, we could see the Ravens do things a little differently when it comes to their inside linebackers when the season begins. We could see a few different players manning the position depending on the situation.
In the first week of training camp, we saw four different inside linebackers take snaps with the first-team defense. Albert McClellan and Josh Bynes, who were with the team last season, have taken a lot of reps with the top unit. The newcomers, Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown, will be working to unseat them this summer.
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“That group right now, you can basically clump a lot of them together, and they’re all fighting their tails off for two or three spots,” linebackers coach Ted Monachino said on Sunday. “Whether it’s a spot on early downs or a spot in the sub packages, the competition is high all the way from our oldest veteran in Daryl and all the way down through our new rookie in Arthur Brown. So, it’s a very good room.”
Whoever ends up starting for the Ravens will play many of the snaps, but different down-and-distances call for different things from your insider linebackers, which is why three or maybe even four players could take on significant roles.
Smith is 31, but if he can play similar to how he did with the Jacksonville Jaguars before a groin injury limited him to two games in 2012, he might be the most well-rounded member of this quartet, making him a good candidate to start. He is reliable against the run, can drop into coverage and he can blitz if you need him, too. Plus Monachino, who coached him in Jacksonville, compared his preparation and football intelligence to Lewis.
McClellan is more of a downhill player, but he is reliable against the run and might bring the most out of this bunch as a blitzer after being moved from outside linebacker this offseason.
Bynes worked his way from the practice squad to the 53-man roster last season and made the final tackle of the Super Bowl on special teams, and his experience in that phase is an asset as he looks to stay on the squad. His strong suit is plugging the run, which could get him on the field in short-yardage situations, but he hasn’t displayed quality coverage skills.
The wild card is Brown, the team’s second-round draft pick back in April. We have only seen a little bit of the rookie, but he is decisive defending the run and his speed is impressive. His coverage skills could at the very least earn him a spot in sub packages for passing downs, and if he shows that he is strong enough to shed NFL blockers, he could start at some point.
(Jameel McClain could also factor into this group, but he remains sidelined with a bruised spinal cord and it is unclear if and when he will be cleared to return to full-contact football.)
Some outside The Castle wonder if the Ravens can get by with that group (though the position isn’t as prominent as it was when Lewis was at his pinnacle), but the Ravens aren’t concerned. They may not have jack of all trades like they once had in Lewis, but they think that with a few guys bringing a little something different to the table, they will be just fine.
“Obviously, we love our guys,” Monachino said. “It’s been a great addition to have Daryl Smith in the room. He’s a veteran presence. He’s a guy that the game has slowed down for already, so he sees it a little differently than a lot of the other guys might. It’s been really good. They’ve meshed really well together. The chemistry is good in there right now.”