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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Do the Ravens need to upgrade at linebacker? It’s open to debate. | COMMENTARY

When the 2021 season ended, the perception was that the injury-riddled Ravens secondary had become the defense’s weakest unit. But upon further review, it might have been the linebackers.

The hint of dissatisfaction came soon afterward when the Ravens parted ways with outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins and inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan. Those dismissals and the subpar play on the field leaves newly hired defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and the college scouts with a tough decision when the NFL draft starts April 28.

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The Ravens have pressing needs on the offensive and defensive lines, but what if a top middle linebacker like Georgia’s Nakobe Dean or Utah’s Devin Lloyd is available when the team selects with the No. 14 overall pick in the first round?

If Dean or Lloyd are available, and clearly the best player on the board, then it’s not that hard of a decision. But if they have similar grades, then the debate becomes a bit more intriguing.

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By now, it’s no secret that the Ravens have glaring weaknesses on the interior of the defensive line, but Macdonald has to determine if the middle linebacker position is salvageable. When the Ravens selected Patrick Queen with the No. 28 overall pick in the 2020 draft, he was expected to be the starter for at least the next five years.

Because of his speed, there were some who thought he could be the next Ray Lewis. Well, that hasn’t panned out.

New Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has to decide if he can turn Patrick Queen into a solid middle linebacker or keep him at the weak side, where he doesn’t have to be as physical and showed some improvement.

In fact, Queen struggled so much last season that former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale moved him to the weak side. But the same problems followed him there. He couldn’t get off blocks. He missed tackles because of poor technique and bad pursuit angles.

Now Macdonald has to decide if he can turn Queen into a solid middle linebacker or keep him at the weak side, where he doesn’t have to be as physical and showed some improvement.

“I think it’s up in the air right now,” Macdonald said recently of Queen. “We’re still early on. That will be a process that we’ll probably keep you up to date as it goes. But Patrick is going to be successful no matter where he’s at. He’s a great player, he’s got a great skill set, he’s very smart, he’s still really young. So, he’s got a great career ahead of him.”

The Ravens have the option to bring back 32-year-old veteran Josh Bynes in the middle, but he is a stop-gap measure. He is familiar with the team’s scheme, a popular player in the locker room and is coming off a solid season with 76 tackles in 12 starts, but he is also a liability in pass coverage.

Bynes has had three stints with the Ravens. Unless there is an emergency, is there really a need for a fourth?

The Ravens need a strong presence in the middle. There is uncertainty about whether they will re-sign their top run-stoppers on the defensive line in end Calais Campbell and nose tackle Brandon Williams. The Ravens have capable backups in tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington, but they are unproven as starters.

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Maybe Macdonald, who turned around Michigan’s defense last season, can work similar magic with Queen and fellow third-year linebacker Malik Harrison. Maybe the infusion of other new coaches like inside linebackers coach Zach Orr, outside linebackers coach Rob Leonard or new defensive quality control assistant Ryan Osborn might be enough for Macdonald to keep Queen inside for another season.

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd could be an option for the Ravens in the first round of the draft. The 6-3, 232-pound prospect had 101 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, eight sacks and four interceptions last season.

If not, Lloyd and Dean are good options. Dean had 72 tackles, 10 ½ tackles for loss, six sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021 to lead Georgia to the national championship. He is the speedy prototype NFL teams are chasing at 6-feet and 225 pounds.

Lloyd is more of the old guard with a 6-3, 232-pound frame. He had 101 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, eight sacks and four interceptions last season.

The Ravens are going to scout both Lloyd and Dean hard. It’s already tough to win in the NFL, and even tougher when a team can’t stop the run. Hopefully the Ravens don’t limit themselves when it comes to scouting and evaluating. Sometimes, they get too caught up in trends or their own misconceptions.

Because they are a run-first team, they have continued to draft big, powerful offensive linemen who struggle pass blocking. That’s a major reason why they’ve won only one playoff game in the past four seasons. The NFL has coveted these fast, quick linebackers to help in pass coverage, but there are linebackers out there who could play both the run and the pass reasonably well.

C.J. Mosley, despite a slow start, was solid in both areas when he was with the Ravens from 2014 to 2018. Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons can play all over the field on any down and situation. And then there was Lewis, the best ever, who only came off the field late in his career when the coaches forced him to the sideline.

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In some ways, Lewis will never be replaced because players like him are generational in NFL cities.

But the Ravens might be in the hunt for the next one.


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