When Terrell Suggs went down with a torn right Achilles tendon in late April, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that second-round draft pick Courtney Upshaw would start at one of the outside linebacker spots for the Ravens in Week 1. That belief was reinforced this spring when the rookie linebacker from Alabama worked almost exclusively with the first-team defense.
But Upshaw arrived last month at training camp still several pounds above his target weight of 270 pounds. And after he sprained his right shoulder, which forced him to miss more than a week of practice and the preseason opener, he lost ground to second-year linebacker Albert McClellan.
Upshaw is still listed as the starting rush linebacker atop the semi-official depth chart on the team's website, but McClellan has started both preseason games. In the 31-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the first preseason game, McClellan made five tackles and recorded a sack.
If the regular season were to start today -- yes, you and I both know it doesn't -- McClellan and Paul Kruger would likely start at outside linebacker. And coach John Harbaugh said Monday that it would be "pretty presumptuous" to assume that Upshaw would just be handed a starting job.
"You've got to earn your stripes. You've got to earn your position, no matter what," Harbaugh said. "I don't know why a lot of people would think that. It's pretty presumptuous. The best guys play."
In last Thursday's 27-12 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions, Upshaw saw action with both the starting unit and the second-stringers, but he didn't record a tackle, a sack or any other positive play that showed up on the stat sheet. In the locker room after the game, he said he was happy to make his M&T Bank Stadium debut, but he acknowledged that he needs to produce to play.
Meanwhile, McClellan showed last season that he could produce while playing a variety of roles. Then an undrafted rookie from Marshall, he played in all 18 games, including playoffs, and led the Ravens with 11 special teams tackles in 2011. He was also a surprise starter against the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night, making four tackles with Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe sidelined.
On Monday, reporters asked Harbaugh twice about McClellan. He praised the 26-year-old, saying that his worth ethic is "as good as anybody's" and that he is performing at a "really high level."
"You can probably describe Albert as a guy who is steady in all areas," Harbaugh said. "He's a good pass rusher. He's kind of a leverage rusher. He can bend the edge and get leverage underneath the offensive lineman. He's solid against the run. He sets the edge well. He does a nice job with his pass drops. He's a guy with no real weakness. I'd say he's plusses all across the board."
It sure sounds like McClellan's roster spot is secure. He wasn't a lock coming into camp, but he might just be the frontrunner to start in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Upshaw, who looked tentative at times in Monday's practice, will eventually play a significant role this season, too. The Ravens will need him to -- especially if Suggs doesn't suit up in 2012.
But Harbaugh made it clear that nothing will be handed to him. The rookie will have to earn it.