INDIANAPOLIS — — The question is seemingly asked every year at this time, as if there is a handbook on how you confront the loss of a 13-time Pro Bowl performer, one of the best ever at his position and a player that has served as one of the faces of the franchise since the day the NFL returned to Baltimore.
How will the Ravens replace middle linebacker Ray Lewis?
Team owner Steve Bisciotti insists there is no answer to the question, saying this month that you "don't replace Hall of Famers. I think they show up in different areas."
If the Ravens are stressing over the matter and consumed by the idea of life without the inimitable Lewis, it simply is not evident. No team official has listed the linebacker position as a top priority this offseason, instead choosing to focus on rebuilding the offensive line, finding another wide receiver and adding a pass rusher.
It's not that Lewis, 36, has given any indication that this season will be his last. He missed four games during the 2011 season with a foot injury, but he returned and had a pretty strong finish. After the Ravens' season-ending loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Lewis quickly refuted the idea that his playing days were nearing an end before he was even asked.
"It's eventually going to happen [to] everyone," said Brian BIllick, Lewis' former coach with the Ravens who spoke to reporters Saturday at the NFL scouting combine. "Ray, gosh, it amazes me. I thought a couple of years ago he was a bit of a liability on third down, and he seemed to bounce back in only the way Ray Lewis can and needed to be on the field every snap. Amazing. But even for Ray Lewis, at some point, yeah. Ray has such a high expectation for himself and again, it's hard for a player sometimes to truly recognize where you are. ... It's a tough question."
The Ravens have drafted an inside linebacker in the first three rounds just once since 1997, selecting Tavares Gooden out of the University of Miami with the 71st overall pick in 2008. They have seen plenty of inside linebackers come and go, and they now face the reality of losing another as two-year starter Jameel McClain is eligible to hit the open market in about 21/2 weeks as an unrestricted free agent.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said Friday that he definitely wants to re-sign McClain, but he knows the former undrafted free agent who improved steadily while playing alongside Lewis could have a host of suitors.
McClain, 26, could be one of numerous defections from the Ravens' linebacker group. Jarret Johnson, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Edgar Jones are also unrestricted free agents, and Dannell Ellerbe is a restricted free agent.
"I had a conversation with Jarret at the end of the season, and I told him I would maintain communication with him throughout the process," Newsome said. "Jarret is a Raven. He plays like a Raven. We'd love to have him back if things can work themselves out."
Further complicating the Ravens' linebacker picture is the uncertainty of how outside linebacker Sergio Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick who missed his entire rookie season after suffering a head injury in a fall down the stairs, will react to playing more snaps.
He was active for just two of the Ravens' 18 games this past season and didn't record any statistics.
"We're looking forward to Serg being part of the offseason program," Newsome said. "It starts from Day One, being part of the offseason program, going through the [organized team activities] and the minicamp. I think we have a very good handle on what his strengths and weaknesses are, and it's going to be interesting to see how we can integrate him into the defense. We think we have a very good handle on it. I think this offseason is going to be very big for Serg."
Lewis will obviously play inside and Terrell Suggs, the recently anointed NFL Defensive Player of the Year, will be on the outside, but beyond that, questions abound with the linebacking corps. The return of Johnson and McClain, both steady performers, would answer a couple of them. Ellerbe has struggled to stay healthy, though he has had some good moments for the Ravens.
Linebacker Paul Kruger, who substituted for Johnson in pass-rushing situations, made strides this past season. However, there are questions about whether he could fill some of Johnson's responsibilities, such as setting the edge in the run game.
The remaining linebackers on the Ravens roster — Cody Glenn, Chavis Williams, Albert McClellan and Josh Bynes — were inactive for much of the season.
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At some point in April's draft, the Ravens figure to take a linebacker, but using their first selection (29th overall) on one would be mildly surprising considering their stated offseason priorities and a relatively weak linebacker draft class at their disposal.
Boston College's Luke Kuechy is the top-rated inside linebacker in the draft, but he's expected to be long gone by the time the Ravens make their selection. Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, who patterns his playing style after Lewis', was once being talked about as his heir apparent. But his draft stock has plummeted in recent weeks and he might now be available to the Ravens in the second or third round.
Their first-round pick of Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith last year proves the Ravens aren't afraid to shy away from players who are tagged as "character" concerns. But Burfict's maturity has been questioned — he was called for 17 personal fouls in 35 collegiate games according to ESPN draft guru Todd McShay— and his on-field instincts and freelancing style have been blasted as well.
Consider this scouting report from The Pro Football Weekly draft preview: "A very inconsistent, undisciplined overly emotional locker-room lawyer and [a] divisive energy-draining field force. Has superstar-type talent [with] second-tier free-agent level quality, [and] coach-killing makeup that will drive down his value."
Alabama's Dont'a Hightower appears to be a much better fit at pick 29, but there are questions about his health after he had some knee issues in college. Still, if he is available, he could be tempting for Newsome, who has extensive ties to the Alabama program. Hightower confirmed that he will meet with the Ravens, and listed Lewis and Suggs as two of his idols.
"Whatever happens, I am looking forward to it," Hightower said. "But guys that you watched growing up when you are 15 and you want to be like this guy, to actually be on the field with those guys would be a dream come true."