Ravens offseason primer -- inside linebackers

Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe celebrates after an interception against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

The NFL offseason heats up on Tuesday when the free agency period begins and the NFL draft will take place next month. In anticipation of those events, blogger and reporter Matt Vensel will look at six key positions the Ravens might address in free agency and the NFL draft in the days leading up to the start of free agency.

Ray Lewis could not have scripted his final NFL season much better than how it played out. It was a story of overcoming adversity and defying doubters, with Lewis improbably returning from a torn triceps to help lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. With his decline becoming more noticeable, he picked the perfect time to retire.


The Ravens are finally forced to tackle life without Lewis, who leaves a leadership void, but the question marks at the inside linebacker position don't end there. Jameel McClain, who started next to Lewis early in the season, suffered a serious neck injury that ended his 2012 season. And Dannell Ellerbe, who played so well for the Ravens in the second half of the season and the playoffs, will become an unrestricted free agent.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month that the team wants to get stronger up the middle on defense, and that includes the inside linebacker position. The possibilities for doing so are wide open, but it starts with keeping Ellerbe.


Where they stand: McClain has another two years left on the deal he signed last season and the team also has reserves Brendon Ayanbadejo and Josh Bynes under contract for 2013. Retaining Ellerbe would go a long way toward solidifying the position -- they have just over $11 million in cap space -- but he is considered to be the top free-agent inside linebacker and could command a multi-year deal worth millions more than what they can afford.

Who's out there: Besides Ellerbe, some other inside linebackers expected to reach free agency include Jacksonville's Daryl Smith, Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga, Buffalo's Nick Barnett, and Green Bay's Brad Jones. There are also intriguing draft prospects, including likely first-rounders in Georgia's Alec Ogletree and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and projected second-day picks such as LSU's Kevin Minter, UNC's Kevin Reddick and Kansas State's Arthur Brown.

Stat that stands out: 18.7 -- Ellerbe's pass rushing productivity last season, first among inside linebackers in metrics from Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, Ellerbe generated 18 total pressures, including 4.5 sacks, in the 79 snaps in which he rushed the quarterback. His blitzing ability, along with adequate performance when dropping into coverage, opened eyes and suggested he might be more than just a two-down thumper.

What they might do: Now that quarterback Joe Flacco is under contract for 2013 and beyond, re-signing Ellerbe has become one of the team's top priorities. There is no telling what might happen if a deal is not reached by March 12 and he is allowed to hit the open market. Whether Ellerbe stays or goes, the Ravens are still expected to address the position, whether it is with a less expensive veteran signing, a draft pick or both.

Check back at the Baltimore Sports Blitz blog Thursday for a look at how the Ravens might address the wide receiver position.