The Ravens will have more pressing needs to address during the upcoming NFL draft than finding a long-term replacement for legendary linebacker Ray Lewis. But that difficult task is something they must tackle sooner rather than later.
First, here's a disclaimer from Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"There's not going to be a Ray Lewis in the draft in the next year or two," Harbaugh recently told NFL Network. "We won't be able to replace Ray Lewis."
Lewis is a once-in-a-generation player, and few have personified a football franchise like the 35-year-old linebacker has with the Ravens. He has been selected to 12 Pro Bowls, named to seven All-Pro first teams, handed two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. He was the Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens won their only Lombardi Trophy. He truly is an entertainer and an icon.
"In my opinion he's the greatest middle linebacker in the history of the game," Harbaugh said. "He's still playing as well as any middle linebacker in football today. That's an incredible thing after 15 years in the National Football League. I love him. I want him to play as long as he wants to play, and I think he'll know when it's time, but as he has told me before, it's not time."
That all may be true, and we know the chances will be slim of a youngster taking over Lewis' leadership role and slimmer of that player filling the void in the hearts of Ravens fans when Lewis decides it's time. But the Ravens do need to find a do-it-all inside linebacker to take over for him on the team's depth chart. They can't throw Lewis' bronze bust from Canton out there in the middle of the defense and expect it to make tackles and intimidate Twitter-happy wide receivers.
Jameel McClain, an undrafted free agent who started alongside Lewis in his third season, was a revelation in 2010, finishing third on the team in tackles. But Tavares Ellerbe and Dannell Ellerbe are limited in their abilities and are better suited as situational players or bench warmers, depending on your perspective.
That's why I wasn't surprised to read that the Ravens had chatted with Oregon inside linebacker Casey Matthews, the brother of Packers sack master Clay Matthews III. And that's why I suspect they kept a close eye on the linebacker prospects at the recently-concluded NFL scouting combine. Matthews, Quan Sturdivant, Greg Jones, Martez Wilson and Nate Irving are among some of the top inside linebacker prospects, though none might get drafted in the first round. Will the Ravens see enough potential in one of them to spend a second-rounder or third-rounder in April? Only Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta know the answer to that question.
If they don't use an early pick on an inside linebacker this year -- the top end of the crop is considered weak -- they would be wise to do it soon. Lewis' strong play in 2010 suggests that he has two or three more productive years left in him, but let's not forget that Harbaugh "broached" the subject of limiting Lewis' snaps. Age catches up to everyone eventually, even if you're riding a rocket-powered raven into outer space.
Harbaugh is right; Lewis' eventual replacement probably won't end up being a future Hall of Famer or a franchise icon. But someone will have to start at inside linebacker when Lewis is gone.