Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor communicated almost daily with veterans such as Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley ever since he arrived in Baltimore in 2016. So, it’s no surprise that he still talks to them even though both of his former teammates signed with other teams during free agency.
Suggs, the seven-time Pro Bowl performer who played 16 seasons in Baltimore, left behind a similar message for Onwuasor.
“It is going to hurt us a little bit,” Onwuasor said. “Those guys were the leaders from the first day, but [Suggs] said it is time for the new breed, that it’s time for us to start our own legacy and carry on the tradition of playing great defense here.”
Onwuasor, 26, appears ready to accept the mantle. He has been working out four or five times a week running hills, gaining mobility and lifting weights. A year ago, he finished fourth on the team with 59 tackles and 5½ sacks while starting 12 of 16 games at weakside linebacker. He got off to a slow start, but finished strong with 4½ sacks in the last six games, including one in the playoffs.
With Mosley signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Jets last month, the Ravens might move the 6-foot, 227-pound Onwuasor to middle linebacker. He filled in for an injured Mosley for nearly two games last season.
So far, though, Onwuasor hasn’t heard a word.
“I want to know what you have heard,” Onwuasor said laughing. “All I know is that [defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale] is going to put me in the best position to make plays and help this team. Whatever he wants and asks I will do.”
When Onwuasor filled in for Mosley last year, he had never played in the middle. Only three years ago, he was a safety playing for Portland State and the Ravens decided to move him to linebacker when he signed as an undrafted free agent.
As Mosley’s replacement, Onwuasor had eight tackles against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 and only three a week later against the Denver Broncos.
“In that first game, I would try to run through certain gaps but kept getting cut off by the tight end,” Onwuasor said. “After talking to C.J., he told me that would happen a lot and it would take time, but I just had to learn the game. Even after this season, I still have to work on recognition, being able to quickly determine what plays are going to be run in certain formations.
“But I started to feel more comfortable at the end of the season, when I just played and reacted. Now I have to become a leader because guys like Siz and C.J were our leaders for so long.”
If you are around Onwuasor, you can sense he wants this role. He appears willing to learn and is determined. He is a hard worker who is confident, yet humble. Some have said he is aloof, but he is just quiet and soft-spoken.
About a week ago, he became a father for the first time to Patrick Onwuasor III.
“Some people have asked, ‘Did I cry?’ ” Onwuasor said. “I haven’t cried yet, but eventually I will, especially with the stuff I’ve been through.”
In July 2013 while he was a sophomore at Arizona, Onwuasor was arrested on charges that included possession of a handgun and marijuana. He eventually transferred to Portland State, but there was a time when he thought his playing career was over.
The worst part was calling home to tell his mom he had to leave school.
“She was devastated and hurt, but she never turned her back on me,” Onwuasor said. “At that point, I thought football was over. A lot of people never get a second chance. It was a wake-up call for me. The blessing is now that I get to teach and work with my son about staying out of trouble and what it takes. Sometimes you have to step back and watch God make his magic.”
Onwuasor was born on the bad side of Inglewood, Calif. How bad?
“A lot of people never get out,” he said.
But he seems to be the type of player who manages to beat the odds. The percentages weren’t in his favor to play college football again after the problems at Arizona, much less to make it to the NFL. Few players make it in the league as undrafted rookie free agents, and even less actually become starters, especially when learning a new position.
Now, Onwuasor is close to the prototypical inside linebacker. They aren’t always big and bulky like they used to be, where they basically clogged up everything in the middle. They are speed guys who are able to run sideline to sideline.
Only now, he has a chance to become a leader on a defense and with a franchise which has been one of the best in the NFL over the past decade.
“I think we have a lot of young guys who can step up and become leaders,” Onwuasor said, pointing out linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith, among others. “When I first got here, I was always watching guys like Siz, C.J. and [Eric Weddle]. I wanted to learn from them. Even when they would eat, I would watch them and I think they appreciated us because we didn’t talk so much. But they are gone.
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“And it’s our turn.”