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Smoke can’t hide a major Ravens weakness at inside linebacker | COMMENTARY

Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale gets a lot of credit for disguising blitzes and coverage, but he could have taken a few lessons from Eric DeCosta this week.

The second-year general manager had fakes, dodges, end-arounds and blew plenty of smoke when it came to questions about which player the Ravens coveted most with their No. 28 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

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Congratulations Mr. DeCosta but the Ravens still need to select an inside or middle linebacker.

Throughout this week DeCosta said the group of wide receivers in this year’s class was “prolific”, and 25 were “draftable.” He rated the running backs, offensive linemen and tight ends positions as very talented and also said he was impressed with cornerbacks, safeties and quarterbacks.

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DeCosta, however, didn’t say much about cornerbacks or defensive linemen, which makes you wonder if that’s the direction in which the Ravens are headed with their first pick in the April 23-25 draft.

The Ravens need a big, thumping, kick-butt linebacker in the middle. If he can play and stay on the field in passing situations, that’s great. If he can blitz, that’s cool, too.

The first priority is to find a guy who can stop the run. The middle linebacker position might be the weakest on the team now with former Ravens Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor signing free agent contracts with the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, respectively, this offseason.

There have been two inside linebackers consistently linked to the Ravens leading up to the draft in Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen.

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As expected DeCosta gave glowing comments about both during the week and said they were worth being selected in the top 40. That might mean one or both could be gone by the time the Ravens select in the first round.

But if they are still on the board close to when the Ravens select, I wouldn’t have a problem trading up a couple of spots, especially with the Ravens having nine overall picks. Either player would be regarded as an impact player and instant starter.

Plus, the strategy is out on how to beat the Ravens. If an opposing team can get a lead, run the ball to control the clock and make quarterback Lamar Jackson throw more than 29 times a game than the Ravens are beatable.

In a 2018 wild-card playoff game, which the Ravens lost, the Los Angeles Chargers weren’t dominant in running but effective. Quarterback Philip Rivers completed only 22 of 33 passes for 160 yards and the Chargers only ran 33 times for 89 yards, but they had nearly a seven-minute advantage in time of possession.

Last season, Tennessee blew up the Ravens defense for 217 yards rushing in a 28-12 win for the Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs. Since then, the Ravens have made two good moves by signing defensive ends Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, but a middle linebacker would give them a more complete run defense.

Now, which one is better, Murray or Queen?

They both played in strong college programs and both have similar speed with Queen possibly being a slight bit faster. Murray might have a better upside because of his 6-foot-2, 241-pound frame, which could take more pounding in the long run. He had 102 tackles last season for the Sooners, 17 for losses.

DeCosta likes Oklahoma players with four on the current Ravens roster, but they are all on offense. Murray was a stud for an Oklahoma defense that allowed an average of 27.3 points.

“Tremendous athlete, a cerebral guy. He’s got really good length,” DeCosta said of Murray. “He’s been a really good defensive player on a team that really hasn’t had a lot of really good defensive players lately. He’s a great student of the game. He’s got great intangibles.”

Queen is 6 feet and weighs 229 pounds. He had 85 tackles last season, 12 tackles for losses. He can blitz (three sacks last year), which is of vital importance in the Ravens scheme.

"Not as big as Murray, (but) very explosive," DeCosta said. "LSU has put a number of really good defensive players in the league over the last four or five years. He's a guy that's sideline to sideline, he can play downhill, he's a very good cover linebacker.

"He was not a household name before this year. He played his best football probably over the second half of the season, really good performances in the playoffs and national championship."

As expected DeCosta left it open about which one the Ravens would prefer. More teams are throwing the ball now compared with a decade ago but maybe the trend will be reversed.

The Ravens might be part of the trend. With more teams using sub packages in coverage, including smaller linebackers or safeties in place of them, teams like the Ravens and Titans have muscled up.

“I think the league has kind of morphed into more of a speed league in some respects; guys that can run, cover and blitz and do all those things." DeCosta said. “But you also need a guy that can effectively play the run and take on guys. In a perfect world, you’d like to have a bigger guy, but you’re also looking for a bigger guy who can run.”

Oh, there he goes again.

But behind the smoke there is a reality. The Ravens have to find a middle linebacker. They can’t escape it.

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