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Uncertainty with Kindle further complicates Ravens' linebacker picture

Ravens have five free-agent linebackers, including McClain, Johnson

By Jeff Zrebiec

9:11 AM EST, February 25, 2012

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Sergio Kindle’s status and ability continue to be sources of curiosity from fans, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said yesterday that the team has a much better understanding of what the linebacker can do.

“I think we have a very good handle on what his strengths and weaknesses are, and it’s going to be interesting to see how we can integrate him into the defense,” Newsome said. “We think we have a very good handle on it. I think this offseason is going to be very big for Serg. … We’re looking forward to [his] being part of the offseason program. It starts from Day One [and goes] through the OTAs and the minicamp.”

Kindle, the second-round pick in 2010 who missed his entire rookie season after suffering a head injury following a fall down the stars, was active for just two of the Ravens’ 18 games this past season and didn’t record any statistics.

The uncertainty of how Kindle will react to playing more snaps further complicates the Ravens’ decision-making process at linebacker. Ray Lewis in the middle and Terrell Suggs on the outside are the mainstays, but after that, questions abound.

Four Ravens linebackers (Jameel McClain, Jarret Johnson, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Edgar Jones) are unrestricted free agents, and another, Dannell Ellerbe, is a restricted free agent.

Asked specifically about McClain and Johnson, Newsome said he wants them both back, but price will obviously come into play. McClain appears to be the bigger priority of the two. Ellerbe is likely to be back, but the Ravens still remain especially thin in the middle unless the linebacker position is addressed in free agency and/or the draft.

Fans and football pundits alike have long wondered how the Ravens would prepare for life after Lewis, but as of now, it’s fair to wonder who will be playing next to Lewis in 2012.

Linebackers will meet with teams and reporters today at the NFL Scouting Combine. It appears to be a particularly weak inside linebacker draft class after Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, who is expected to be gone by the middle of the first round. One fit perhaps could be Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower, who is slated to go right around where the Ravens sit with the 29th pick in the first round. Newsome obviously knows plenty about the former Crimson Tide standout.

A popular suggestion -- until recently, that is -- was for the Ravens to use their first pick to find Lewis’ successor. The name mentioned most often was Arizona State inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who idolizes Lewis and patterns his game after Lewis'.

The only problem is that Burfict’s status continues to plummet, with some draft experts saying that he might fall into the third round.  That’s because of a combination of things, including questions about Burfict’s discipline – he was called for 17 personal-foul penalties in 35 career college games, according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay – and his consistency.

In its 2012 draft guide, Pro Football Weekly said this of Burfict: “A very inconsistent, undisciplined, overly emotional locker-room lawyer and [a] divisive, energy-draining field force. He’s superstar-type talent and second-tier free-agent level quality [with] coach-killing makeup that will drive down his value.”

Ouch. Does that sound like a Raven?

Lewis would be just the man, and the Ravens just the team, to get the best out of Burfict. However, there appear to be just too many red flags – both with maturity and performance – to see the Ravens taking a chance on Burfict early in the draft. But then again, they do need linebacking help.