Linebacker not a concern

The Baltimore Sun

The time will come when the Ravens will have to begin searching for Ray Lewis' successor at middle linebacker. That time, however, is not now.

With Lewis, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, fellow starter Bart Scott and reserves Mike Smith and Dennis Haley on the roster, inside linebacker is not exactly a position of need for the Ravens.

And even though Lewis will turn 32 on May 15, general manager Ozzie Newsome said the organization will not push one of the team's cornerstones out the door.

"I think he will make the decision when he wants to retire from this game," Newsome said. "When you go back to the last game [against the Indianapolis Colts], the amount of tackles [defensive coordinator] Rex [Ryan] said he was in was over 20. I think he got his hands on four or five balls in that game. Ray will decide whenever he wants to retire."

But in the same breath, Newsome acknowledged that the team's brain trust won't ignore that position if the right player can be found in the first or second rounds of the NFL draft on Saturday.

"If there is a good player at 29 or 61 or if we move back and there is a good linebacker, we're going to take him," he said. "We're not going to pass up a good player because we have Pro Bowl players at certain positions. We don't operate that way."

If the Ravens are serious about finding Lewis' successor, they may need to take a gamble and use one of their two first-day selections on a group that is generally considered thin.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, "It's very, very suspect overall at linebacker."

The consensus top inside linebacker is Patrick Willis of Mississippi, who's 6-foot-1, 242 pounds and registered 137 tackles en route to winning the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker.

But the Buffalo Bills, with the No. 12 pick, reportedly covet Willis, who isn't expected to drop past No. 18 where the Cincinnati Bengals would likely grab him.

After Willis, the talent pool gets a little murkier. At 6-2 and 243 pounds, David Harris of Michigan is built as solidly as Willis and is just as tough. Concerns about his speed were dismissed after he ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in 4.59 seconds, but some experts have said that Harris might be a better fit in a Tampa 2 scheme.

At one point, Florida's Brandon Siler was projected to be the No. 2 linebacker behind Willis, but he played in only three games last season due to a partially torn knee ligament and ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds. Scouts have marveled at the 6-2, 241-pound prospect's reaction time and tenacity in shedding blockers.

Perhaps the biggest riser on teams' draft boards is Hampton's Justin Durant. The 6-1, 230-pound Durant tied Willis for the fastest time in the 40 by an inside linebacker (4.51 seconds) and impressed observers with his tackling and pass-coverage skills.

After those three, Florida State's James "Buster" Davis, Stanford's Michael Okwo and Pittsburgh's H.B. Blades lead a group that could slip into the second day. One potential sleeper is Zak DeOssie of Brown. He is 6-5, 250 pounds and also a decent long snapper. His father Steve played for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and New England Patriots.

Although many of the top inside linebackers are expected to be gone by the end of the first day, Eric DeCosta, the Ravens director of college scouting, said the front office won't reach to fill the position.

To prove his point, DeCosta reminded the media of the team's decision to select Ed Hartwell in the fourth round of the 2001 draft.

"We've had some success taking linebackers in the fourth round and fifth round," he said. "Anybody can go into Florida State or Miami and scout those players, or look at the mock drafts and do all the research. It's a lot tougher to go to Southern Illinois and see that they've got a linebacker [like Scott] that nobody else is scouting and nobody else knows about, who hasn't gone to the combine, who hasn't played in any all-star games. ... That's a thrill and a rush that I feel."

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