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C.J. Mosley plays in Ray Lewis' shadow, but doesn't try to be him

C.J. Mosley says he would have been "dumb" to try to emulate Ravens great Ray Lewis last year.

The Ravens' position rooms at the Under Armour Performance Center are redecorated annually before the start of a new season. Pictures of veterans who have retired or signed elsewhere are taken off the wall and replaced by photos of the team's current players at that position.

But the occupants of the linebacker room made a decision a couple of years ago: The displayed photo of Ray Lewis, whose 17-year NFL career ended after the 2012 season, wasn't to be touched.

"As a group, we said that we were going to keep this picture up because he's going to put on a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket," said Ravens inside linebackers coach Don Martindale. "We take pride in it. We accept it as the challenge and we're humbled by it at the same time. We know where we're at and we're proud to be where we're at. We know where Ray set the bar."

When C.J. Mosley was taken in the first round of the draft by the Ravens in 2014, the comparisons to Lewis were inevitable, albeit wholly unfair for a 22-year-old rookie. Never mind that Mosley plays a different style than Lewis and has a distinctly different personality. He was a young inside linebacker with the Ravens, an organization that holds a clear — and extremely high — standard at that position.

Not backing down from those expectations, Mosley led the team last season with 129 tackles, shared the team lead with two interceptions and played all 16 games, becoming the first rookie in Ravens history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. As he prepared for his second season, all Mosley could talk about were the things he needs to do better.

"I'm definitely trying to make that leap into becoming an elite linebacker in this league," Mosley said. "I found my way here doing things a certain way — that's having power and speed. I can't change my game. All I can do is get better and take in a little piece from different players here and there, and just get better with the mental part of football. Learn the defense even more, learn the ins and outs of the opposing offense and pick up schemes. That will put me in better places."

More often than not last season, Mosley was in the right place, forming a formidable inside linebacker duo with Daryl Smith. Mosley finished seventh in the NFL in tackles and was the only player in the league with at least 125 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

"The thing that surprised me compared to other rookies that I've coached is how fast he picked up the football things," Martindale said. "We have a saying here: 'Don't be an error repeater. Don't make the same mistake.' He just never did that the first year."

Still, Mosley went home in the offseason consumed by the areas he felt he needed to improve. He wanted to be better in pass coverage as he struggled at times last year to match up with certain running backs and tight ends. He also wanted to get stronger, feeling he wore down a little bit during his rookie season.

Mosley's second goal was put on hold when he underwent offseason wrist surgery, which prevented him from lifting weights and doing upper-body work. It also knocked him out from participating fully in summer minicamps and team activities. Only about midway through training camp did Mosley start to feel more like himself.

"Strength-wise, I'm not 100 percent, but I'm definitely better than where I started off," he said.

Just how much better can Mosley be?

Lewis said that will come down to how Mosley takes care of himself physically and whether his body holds up to the annual pounding that inside linebackers take. When Lewis and Mosley have had opportunities to talk, they haven't spoken about different plays or techniques.

Their talks have almost exclusively revolved around Lewis telling Mosley what it takes, physically, to build a long and healthy career.

"You come from college and you're slim, your abs are everywhere, you want to run. But, man, you start getting those bruises and you start feeling it," Lewis said. "That's how I started explaining the whole thing to C.J. I'm like, 'Yeah, you look good now. But wait until you get into year two, three, four, five, six. You're going to realize, man, I have to put some meat on me to deal with this pounding.'

"That's what I wanted to give him. I think the [playbook] side of it, he gets. I think the playmaking he gets. I think the professionalism of it, he gets. I just think a lot of kids miss that one curve and that's how your body becomes your greatest asset when you're playing football. But I love the way the kid plays football and I wish him all the health in the world."

When Mosley arrived at Alabama, he was tabbed as the heir apparent to inside linebacker Rolando McClain, an All-American and the eventual eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. So, he said he's used to lofty comparisons and having to play — whether fair or unfair — in somebody else's shadow.

Calling Lewis and former Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus the best inside linebackers to ever play, Mosley said he would have been "dumb" to try to emulate Lewis.

"Nobody in the past is going to do what Ray Lewis did, especially coming to the Baltimore Ravens. He set a legacy and example for all linebackers," Mosley said. "For me, I just take things from his game, as far as leadership wise, how he plays, but just stay with what I do. I got here a certain way; he got here his way. I just want to make sure I stay in my lane and do what I do best."

Those around the team say that will be plenty good enough. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Mosley has all the qualities that great players do: intelligence, work ethic, smarts, physical ability. Ravens veteran rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said Mosley's football IQ sets him apart and that it's been "heightened" since last season.

Former Ravens and Alabama defensive standout Jarret Johnson watched Mosley extensively during training camp as a summer scouting intern for the organization. He paid Mosley the ultimate compliment, describing the Ravens inside linebacker as an old-school football player who would have fit in great in the Ravens defenses of the past.

"He's a tough dude, a man's man," Johnson said. "He might grow into that vocal leader that Ray was, maybe not quite to that extent. But as of now, he's a quiet guy. But man, he's got some dog in him, which you've got to have. ... He's got everything he needs to be successful."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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