Middle linebacker has been a defining position for the Ravens. The signature player in franchise history, Ray Lewis, was also perhaps the greatest ever in a lineage begun by Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke. Lewis’ successor, C.J. Mosley, couldn’t quite live up to that standard, but he stepped in as an immediate high-level starter and made four Pro Bowls in five years. With Mosley gone, lured to New York by the richest contract ever given to an inside linebacker, there’s now a gaping hole at the heart of the Ravens defense. Will they use their first-round pick to fill it, as they did in 1996 and again in 2014? Here’s a look at the reasons why they might and the prospects who fit their needs:
Why might the Ravens use their first-round pick on an inside linebacker?
The Ravens haven’t used many high draft picks on inside linebackers, but when they have, they’ve generally struck gold, as they did when they picked Lewis 26th overall in 1996 and Mosley 17th overall in 2014.
As general manager Eric DeCosta pointed out recently, it’s a position where outstanding college players often fall to the back half of the first round because they’re perceived as less valuable than receivers, pass rushers and defensive backs in the pass-happy modern game. So the top middle linebackers are often lower-risk propositions than the more physically gifted prospects who inspire general managers to reach.
The Ravens have a lot of work to do to replace Mosley’s production and off-field impact. He was one of their best run defenders, the signal caller in the middle of their defense and a locker-room role model for younger players. They wanted to keep him, just not for the price he ultimately commanded on the open market. The Ravens have two promising young inside linebackers in Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but it’s not clear either is an exact fit to replace Mosley. Onwuasor came on as a big-play threat at weak-side linebacker in 2018, but the converted safety is still on the small side to serve as a stalwart against the run, and he would have to grow into the play-calling role Mosley held. Young, a fourth-round pick last year, showed he belonged on an NFL field as a rookie but needs to shore up his tackling and pass coverage. Chris Board could also push for more playing time this year as he tries to become the next-generation Albert McClellan.
The Ravens could go one of two ways on draft day. If one of the top two inside linebackers — Devin White of LSU or Devin Bush of Michigan — slips to them, they could simply use their first-round pick on Mosley’s successor. But DeCosta has said he does not expect either White or Bush to be available when the Ravens pick. So in that case, they would likely look to add a potential starter or quality rotation player later in the draft. They might then shop for a veteran middle linebacker to plug in short-term as other teams make post-draft cuts. Either way, it would be a surprise if they don’t add talent at this position on draft day.
Which linebackers might the Ravens consider at No. 22 overall or on the second day?
Devin White, LB, LSU — Some evaluators regard White as the best all-around player in the draft, so it would be stunning if he falls to the Ravens. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said he’s one of the few prospects who’s ever merited comparisons with Lewis. He combines elite athletic ability with intelligence and competitiveness, and he’s effective both playing side to side and darting into the backfield. White will have to polish his coverage skills and his reads of more complex offenses, but scouts agree he’d help any NFL team right away.
Devin Bush, LB, Michigan — Bush is the type of linebacker DeCosta describes when he lays out the ideal profile for the position. He’s undersized (5 feet 11, 234 pounds) but a terrific athlete who breaks sharply to the ball and was highly productive as a two-year starter for John Harbaugh’s brother, Jim. He’s also unusually good in coverage for a young linebacker. Though many mock drafts have him going off the board just before the Ravens pick (possibly to the Pittsburgh Steelers), it’s conceivable he could make it to No. 22 because of concerns about his size and the lack of focus on inside linebackers.
Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama — You won’t see any inside linebackers other than White or Bush projected to go in the first round of most mock drafts, but Wilson is generally regarded as a solid second-day prospect. He’s a good all-around athlete who has drawn comparisons with Mosley because of their shared Alabama pedigree. Scouts praise his toughness and coverage ability but question his instincts and lack of big-play production in college.
Terrill Hanks, LB, New Mexico State — ESPN analyst Todd McShay pegged him a good fit for the Ravens in his “best-case” three-round mock draft. Hanks is a versatile, aggressive player who started all four years in college. But scouts say he’s not the most efficient one-on-one tackler in space.
Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford — He’s a smart, productive player who could be available in the third or fourth round. Scouts ding him for his lack of strength in taking on blocks, but he could help immediately on special teams and compete for playing time at inside linebacker. Some project him more as an outside linebacker.
Cameron Smith, LB, USC — Smith was a consistent four-year starter who won’t blow anyone away with his strength or speed but could grow into a dependable NFL player because of his instincts, according to scouts. He’s projected to be a third-day selection.