It might be the most difficult question an NFL general manager has to answer, and though the day might not be here yet, the day is fast approaching when Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens will have to answer it, consequences be damned.
When do you decide to draft Ray Lewis' successor?
Making the transition away from an aging certain Hall of Famer who has been the face of your franchise for more than a decade is a prickly endeavor, and history has shown it can divide the fan base as well as the locker room. It happens most frequently with quarterbacks -- as was the case in San Francisco with Joe Montana and Green Bay with Brett Favre -- but in the Ravens' case, Lewis has been more important than any Baltimore quarterback since John Unitas.
Even though he was a Pro Bowl selection for the 11th time in 2009, Lewis clearly isn't quite the sideline-to-sideline tornado he was in his younger days. That doesn't mean he's no longer effective, but it does mean there are a limited number of miles left on his odometer. Eventually, as difficult as it might be, the Ravens are going to have to replace him. And while Dannell Ellerbee turned out to have been a tremendous signing as an undrafted rookie last year, it's unlikely he or Tavares Gooden would be considered a worthy replacement for Lewis.
The top-rated middle linebacker in the draft, Rolando McClain of Alabama, has been compared favorably to Lewis in the past year. McClain, like Lewis, is a film junkie and on-field leader who led his team to a national championship. He also has deceptive speed. His time in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds) wasn't particularly impressive, but neither was Lewis' coming out of college, which is why a number of teams passed on him.
"I think McClain's a good player," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of pro personnel. "He's a big, strong, very, very smart kid."
McClain has made no attempt to hide that Lewis is the player he tried to emulate.
"I love Ray Lewis," McClain said. "I like the way he plays the game. He's arguably one of the best to ever play linebacker. Not just his play, but the way he's able to get the guys up. He's inspirational, and he's a real leader."
But McClain will almost certainly be gone by the time the Ravens get to pick. He's projected to go in the first 15 selections. That leaves the Ravens with an interesting decision when the 25th pick comes up:
DeCosta isn't shy about saying how impressed he has been with Weatherspoon after scouting him. Weatherspoon played middle linebacker as a junior and looked like one of the best players in the country. But the Tigers changed defensive coordinators his senior year and moved him around a lot, sometimes switching to him to outside linebacker in the middle of a drive, depending on the scheme.
"I think [Weatherspoon] is really one of the most explosive guys in the entire draft," DeCosta said. "He's a great kid, very, very smart. He had an unbelievable junior year and not quite as good of a senior year. He gained some weight, but he had a unbelievable Senior Bowl and a great combine. He's working out extremely well."
Weatherspoon, like Lewis, is no wallflower. He likes to talk -- on the field, in the locker room and in the weight room.
"Some teams kind of asked me if I put on a front at the Senior Bowl," Weatherspoon said. "They were like, 'Is that you all the time?' I was like, 'Yeah, that's me.' That's the way I grew up. I've always been that loud guy. When I was a kid, I would always get those marks on my progress reports that said, 'Talks excessively.' 'Very loquacious.' That's what I do. I chit-chat, and I chatter."
Weatherspoon is extremely strong for his position. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 34 times at the combine, which was second best among linebackers and better than all but seven players invited to Indianapolis. He also has shown the ability to drop back into coverage, an area in which the Ravens had some glaring weaknesses last season, especially with wide receivers getting open underneath.
The Atlanta Falcons are rumored to be eyeing him with the 19th pick. But if they pass on him, there is a good chance Weatherspoon will be there for the Ravens.
"I love football," Weatherspoon said. "It's not a right to play football. It's a privilege. The good Lord has blessed me with that privilege to be here today, and I am excited. I'm always out there having a good time, and I stay active, just making sure everyone is on the same page. That's a linebacker's job."
After Weatherspoon, the inside linebacker class drops off a bit. Sean Lee of Penn State should be a second-round pick and a starter in the league, but doesn't seem like a dynamic player. Florida's Brandon Spikes was once thought of as a certain first-round pick, but questions about his speed and character have him tumbling into the third or fourth round.