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Ravens free-agency preview: With imperfect options at inside linebacker, don’t expect a big name

On Monday, the Ravens can start poking around the NFL for the player who proved elusive last year: a long-term replacement for inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Whether they’ll have anyone ready to sign by the start of free agency Wednesday is another matter. With the Ravens’ salary cap space shrinking and eight picks in next month’s draft, the team might have to wait on finding the next Mosley — or at least the next Daryl Smith.

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As free agency nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a look at the Ravens’ options at several positions of need, from the players they probably can’t afford to those they can. At linebacker, where the Ravens could lose both early-season starter Patrick Onwuasor and veteran replacement Josh Bynes, finding an affordable upgrade could prove difficult.

Breaking the bank: Los Angeles Rams’ Cory Littleton, Cleveland Browns’ Joe Schobert, Green Bay Packers’ Blake Martinez and Chicago Bears’ Nick Kwiatkoski

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Littleton is the consensus top free-agent inside linebacker available, an every-down presence with strong coverage skills who was named second-team All-Pro in 2018. According to salary database Spotrac, his projected market value is over $12 million annually, but a bidding war could drive that figure closer to $15 million.

Schobert, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, has averaged nearly 127 tackles over the past three seasons and missed just three games in that span. While he’s inconsistent in run defense, he’s a good blitzer and strong in pass defense. Martinez finished second in the NFL in tackles last season (155), but Packers fans grew tired of his empty-calorie production and less-than-ideal athleticism.

Kwiatkoski’s stock, meanwhile, has surged, likely out of the Ravens’ price range. After taking over last season for the injured Danny Trevathan, whom Chicago just re-signed, Kwiatkoski averaged seven tackles per game over seven starts.

Within budget: Ravens’ Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, Kansas City Chiefs’ Darron Lee and Reggie Ragland, Atlanta Falcons’ De’Vondre Campbell, Seattle Seahawks’ Mychal Kendricks, Cincinnati Bengals’ Nick Vigil, Bears’ Kevin Pierre-Louis and free agent Christian Kirksey

Of the Ravens’ two pending free agents, Bynes is the more likely to re-sign, though Onwuasor has the greater potential and can contribute on special teams.

Campbell is coming off his best season yet (129 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions), but he’s been an off-ball outside linebacker in the Falcons’ 4-3 scheme and a liability in coverage. The recently released Kirksey, who signed a four-year, $38 million contract extension with Cleveland in 2017, has had his past two seasons end on the injured reserve.

The class’ other big names have obvious limitations. Lee, a former first-round pick, and Ragland, a former second-round pick, started a combined nine games for Kansas City last season. Kendricks tore his ACL in December and has yet to be sentenced for his involvement in insider trading. Vigil has been consistently average.

Potential fit: A young player on a cheap contract

Unless the Ravens want to run it back with Bynes, there’s not a lot of promising possibilities here to pair with L.J. Fort. Even if Bynes and Onwuasor leave, the team had high hopes for Chris Board entering training camp last year, until a concussion knocked him off course. Otaro Alaka, meanwhile, impressed in preseason play; a hamstring injury later ended his rookie year.

If the Ravens can’t find a fit in free agency — or even if they do — they’ll likely add an inside linebacker through the draft. LSU’s Patrick Queen, Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and Wisconsin’s Zack Baun have already been linked to the team’s No. 28 overall pick.

If the Ravens address another position in the first round, they could still find a productive player later. Just because the only two linebackers they’ve ever taken in the first round, Ray Lewis and Mosley, went on to have All-Pro careers doesn’t mean the next one will, too. In fact, according to a Pro Football Focus study, the odds of finding a linebacker with “starter”-level coverage skills in the fourth round (36.0%) aren’t much worse than the odds of finding one in the second round (43.4%) or even with a top-three pick (47.4%).

With the emergence of safety Chuck Clark, who held up well in the box last season, and the quality of the team’s other defensive backs, the Ravens don’t necessarily need an every-down linebacker. From Week 6 until the end of the season, when the team had one of the NFL’s top defenses, Bynes played more than 60% of the defensive snaps in a game just four times and Fort only once.

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