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As legends often do, Ravens' Ray Lewis changed the way NFL middle linebackers play

Ravens great Ray Lewis talks about each member of the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

There were some doubts about Ray Lewis going into the 1996 NFL draft. As a result, more than two dozen teams passed on the University of Miami linebacker.

Even in the draft-night war room of the NFL’s newest franchise, the Ravens, one of Lewis’ biggest deficiencies — his height — had crept into the debate as the team's No. 26 pick approached.

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One of his biggest champions kept Lewis in the conversation.

“I had to say something that was important to our team, because I was sold on Ray Lewis,” recalled Maxie Baughan, the team’s linebackers coach at the time. “From one minute to the next, I had to go to bat for him.”

Baughan, who as a linebacker for 12 seasons was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times and was named first- or second-team All-Pro six times, eventually won out.

“Mostly with Ray, you have to judge the things you see in the film,” said Baughan, who coached Lewis his first three years in the NFL. “Every time I looked at him on film, he was making more and more and more plays. Somebody that makes plays, you can’t ignore ’em.”

Said former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan: “When he was a freshman in college, he was the leader of that defense. I remember my dad [Buddy Ryan] going to watch him in college, and he knew then that this was the guy.”

As Lewis’ 17-year career evolved, the position of NFL middle linebacker was forever changed.

Gone was the stereotype of the bone-crushing behemoth who ranged only a few yards right or left before separating opposing pass receivers and running backs from both the ball and their senses.

Legendary middle linebacker Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears still has his place in the league’s lore, but compared with Lewis, he was much like the statue built in his honor outside Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.

Ditto for Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers.

“We’ve gone from a middle linebacker that was a basically a nose guard and a thumper to an athletic sideline-to-sideline guy, and clearly that was Ray’s forte,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

“Whether he set that trend or was on the cutting edge of it, I’ll let others decide that. But he certainly is as good as anybody who’s played the game in doing that as a sideline-to-sideline athletic linebacker.”

Ryan, who joined the Ravens coaching staff for the 1999 season as defensive line coach before becoming defensive coordinator from 2005 through 2008, doesn’t believe Lewis changed the game.

“I just think he played it better than anybody,” Ryan said recently.

When Lewis goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 4, he will be accompanied by an impressive list of statistics nearly unparalleled for a middle or inside linebacker.

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His 13 Pro Bowl appearances were the most by any linebacker, and his 10 seasons when he was either first- or second-team All-Pro, including eight on the first team, were tied for the most.

Lewis forced 50 turnovers, only three behind Jack Ham. His 31 interceptions are just one behind Nick Buoniconti and Ham.

“I’m not a person who gets into, 'Did somebody change the game?’ … What I like to focus on is how they did what they were asked to do, and without a doubt, Ray Lewis did it in a way that few others ever have,” said NFL historian John Turney, who publishes Pro Football Journal.

“It’s like having a baseball player who hits for power and speed. A lot of times you can find a guy who can neutralize, and they’ll be two-down linebackers and others might be great at coverage. But to find somebody who is good at both is extremely rare.”

Aside from the number of tackles he made — “He was the best tackler I’ve ever been around,” Ryan said — Turney also looks at the number of passes Lewis picked off.

Despite being only 6 feet 1, Lewis had 31. In an era that featured the quick-hit, bubble-screen barrage of the West Coast offense, nobody was close.

In fact, fellow first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee Brian Urlacher had 22 in 13 years.

“His pass coverage is what sets him apart,” Turney said of Lewis. “Not only was he a three-down linebacker, he was great on all three downs.”

Another statistic that speaks to Lewis' range and speed is sacks. Lewis had 41½, which pales in comparison with edge rushers like Kevin Greene (160), Lawrence Taylor (132.5) and Rickey Jackson (128). But among middle or inside linebackers, no one is close.

“When called upon to blitz, he got there,” Turney said of Lewis. “He wasn’t just a guy who was blitzing to take up a guard or take up a back. Those things stand out even among Hall of Famers.”

Since he retired, some have been mentioned — often fleetingly — as the next Ray Lewis.

Ryan said it won't happen.

“Everybody, of course, would like to find someone. Quite honestly, you ain’t finding him,” Ryan said. “There hasn’t been one since like him. There’ve been some good ones. For anybody who’s ever been around Ray will tell you the same thing. He was absolutely special.

“Do you try to find a guy who can run and hit like Ray, with that kind of leadership and intensity and passion? You look for all those factors. But guess what? They don't exist. I’ve never seen one since and I’ve been coaching a long time.”

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