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A perfect opportunity in a contract year for Ravens OLB Courtney Upshaw

Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Unless the Ravens change their scheme or make a major addition, fourth-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw stands to gain the most from star pass rusher Terrell Suggs' season-ending Achilles tendon tear.

That puts Upshaw, who has settled comfortably into a run-stopping role over his first three seasons, in a position to possibly cash in on one standout season getting after the quarterback and price himself out of a return to the Ravens, like so many others at his position have done before.

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A year ago, fellow outside linebacker Pernell McPhee began a monstrous fourth season and signed with the Chicago Bears during the offseason for five years and more than $38 million, with $15.5 million guaranteed.

Before him, Paul Kruger hadn't enjoyed anywhere near the per-snap productivity Upshaw has in the first three years of his career, but in 2012 parlayed nine sacks in the regular season and 4.5 more in the playoff run to Super Bowl XLVII into a five-year, $40.5 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, $20 million of which was guaranteed.

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Upshaw's gotten to the quarterback far less in his first three years than either McPhee or Kruger. His three career sacks are less than half of Kruger's 6.5 from 2009 to 2011, while McPhee had 9.5 in his first three seasons.

He has plenty of responsibility as a run-stopper and edge-setter, and though those skills are hard to quantify, Ravens players and coaches alike say what he adds to the defense is irreplaceable.

But now, in the last year of his four-year rookie deal, Upshaw has a chance to show he can do it all.

Suggs' first Achilles injury in 2012, when Upshaw was a rookie, was Upshaw's only real opportunity to consistently rush the passer in the NFL, but he was effective doing so in college.

Upshaw led Alabama with seven sacks as a junior in 2010 and 8.5 as a senior in 2011. His 31 career hurries and 15 career quarterback hits suggest he's made more of an impact rushing the passer than his three career sacks would indicate.

But those are all the background stats, just like the ones Upshaw has compiled as a run-down outside linebacker. Beginning Sunday, he has an opportunity to show the Ravens — and the rest of the league — whether he can be a lot more.

Expect a big role for Gillmore

If you look back at other games in recent memory during which Joe Flacco has been under a lot of pressure — last year's losses at Indianapolis, at Pittsburgh, and at Houston come to mind — there's a common thread in how he deals with it. He looks to his tight end.

Owen Daniels had five catches on seven targets, six catches on nine targets, and one catch on six targets in those three games. Daniels' replacement this year, Crockett Gillmore, wasn't thrown a pass until the Ravens' final drive on Sunday. Rookie tight end Maxx Williams' first target was early in the first quarter. They finished with six combined targets, and three catches, but Gillmore will need to get more involved quickly against an Oakland Raiders defense that was torched by an athletic tight end last week.

The Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Eifert caught nine passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns against the soft underbelly of the Raiders defense. It should be noted that Gillmore hardly did that in an entire season last year when in 17 games, including the playoffs, he caught 12 passes for 151 yards and two scores. As the lead tight end, though, Gillmore should be capable of being a primary target like Eifert was against the Raiders.

It would be bad news for the entire offense if Gillmore is so necessary in blocking after last week's pass protection struggles that it prevents him from getting involved in the offense.

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