Ravens: Intriguing pass rushing prospects

OWINGS MILLS - Ozzie Newsome has never forgotten the adage he learned from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "You can never have enough pass rushers."

It's become an even more impactful statement for the Baltimore Ravens' general manager as the NFL continues to trend toward a league that emphasizes passing the football.

As the defending AFC North champions head into the draft Thursday night, bolstering the pass rush could be on their agenda. This fall, the NFL's third-ranked defense from a year ago faces 11 quarterbacks who have been named to at least one Pro Bowl.

Although this isn't regarded as a particularly deep draft for pass rushers, there are several intriguing players who could be available when the Ravens are on the clock with the 29th overall pick of the first round.

That includes Alabama hybrid defensive end Courtney Upshaw, USC defensive end Nick Perry, versatile Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin, Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, the younger brother of Ravens defensive lineman Arthur Jones, as well as Clemson outside linebacker Andre Branch.

Besides first-round prospects, the Ravens brought in Virginia defensive end Cam Johnson for a visit and have kept a close eye on Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry.

"I'd say it's pretty good," Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "If you look throughout the whole top to bottom, there are some guys that will go late that offer that as a skill set, and there are some guys that are more rounded.

"It's going to be 4-3 ends. You are going to have some rush 'backers, 3-4 ends. It's the mix, like it always is. I'd say, if you look at the defensive end and the rush 'backer position, it's pretty full."

The Ravens recorded 48 sacks last season to tie the Super Bowl champion New York Giants for third in the NFL as NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs recorded a career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

Including the playoffs, though, opponents limited Suggs to one sack in the final five games.

That's not a knock on Suggs as much as it reflects a need for even more of a supporting cast as outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Pernell McPhee compete for starting jobs after contributing a combined 11 1/2 sacks last season as situational pass rushers. Plus, the Ravens lost gritty starting outside linebacker Jarret Johnson in free agency when he signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers.

It's regarded as something of a reach that Illinois All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus would still be around for the Ravens' pick.

Mercilus is athletically gifted and had 16 sacks last season to lead the nation, also forcing nine fumbles with 22 1/2 tackles for losses.

"I just have a knack for it," Mercilus said of his penchant for forcing fumbles. "Throughout the game I was able to watch the quarterback's movements and just see him open up and then I just go in there and just knock it away."

Mercilus mostly played soccer until high school and essentially had one great season.

However, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds at the NFL scouting combine and bench pressed 225 pounds 27 times.

"He's a natural pass rusher, he's s a natural edge rusher," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. " He's got excellent take off. He understands how to work up the field. Does he need to learn technique and more pass rush moves? Yes, because right now, like a lot of gifted college kids, he depends on his speed to win. "

There have been reports that Upshaw's stock has been dropping enough to where he could get within striking distance.

An All-American and All-Southeastern Conference selection, Upshaw led the Crimson Tide last season with 8 1/2 sacks and has 16 1/2 sacks for his career.

Upshaw has drawn consistent interest from the Ravens along with the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Upshaw's workout numbers haven't been outstanding with a 4.75 40-yard dash and a 9-1 broad jump, but he's regarded as a pure football player with positional flexibility who does his best work on the field.

In a 49-7 win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, Upshaw was named the Most Valuable Player after recording two sacks, five tackles, three for losses and forcing a fumble.

"Tremendous pass rusher, good motor," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "He can be a 4-3 end or probably a 3-4 outside linebacker.. For a comparison standpoint, probably like LaMarr Woodley a little bit. We've played against him many times."

"Anybody who can rush the passer is of interest of him, and obviously the fact that the guy played at Alabama, big-game type guy, makes him very intriguing."

The Ravens have kept a close eye on McClellin, a relentless defender who grew up on a farm in Idaho.

McClellin visited or worked out for 11 teams.

That includes the Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Titans, Indianapolis Colts and the Cleveland Browns.

The Green Bay Packers are believed to be very interested in him.

McClellin is a fast-rising draft prospect because of his aggressive style, pass-rushing skills and positional versatility.

McClellinhas lined up everywhere from defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker.

He has drawn comparisons to former Denver Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

"Linebacker wise, a guy that fits what they do is not going to be easy to find," Kiper said. "If you want to replace Jarret Johnson, Shea McClellin would be a guy from Boise State who could fit that mold, tremendously versatile, and he's a pass rusher.

"I think a Shea McClellin would give them another dynamic there. You've got Kruger now penciled in at that spot, but that would be a possibility."

The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at the NFL scouting combine where he also registered a 9-10 broad jump, a 31 1/2 inch vertical leap, a 7.07 three-cone drill, a 4.33 in the 20-yard shuttle and bench pressed 225 pounds 19 times.

McClellin excelled at the Senior Bowl.

The All-Mountain West Conference selection had 46 tackles, 9 1/2 for losses and six sacks last season.

"What you like is the fact that they move him around and he was productive," Kiper said. "He can do a lot of different things for you. He's athletic. In their structure, you're talking about playing inside linebacker, outside linebacker, put his hand on the ground.

"There's a lot of different things you can do with him off the edge, and the most important thing in this league is finding guys who can get after the quarterback. He played like a first-round pick during his career at Boise, he played like it at the Senior Bowl, and he tested like it. I think he's got a good chance to be a late first-round draft choice."

Reach staff writer Aaron Wilson at 410-857-7896 or sports@carrollcountytimes.com.