The Baltimore Ravens have a tall order this time around in the NFL draft. The Ravens defense not only lost two future Hall-of-Famers, but they also lost the two defenders who lined up next to the star veterans last season. The Ravens have received credit for building successfully through the draft, and this credit was legitimized with an unexpected playoff run that ended in confetti. The team will have to live up to their reputation for drafting well to remain contenders in 2013 and beyond.
With the retirement of legendary inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the loss of inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe in free agency, and doubt following the season-ending spinal injury to inside linebacker Jameel McClain, an opposing offense lining up against the Ravens today would being staring wide-eyed at the void in the middle of the Ravens defense.
The off-season spillage continued when the Houston Texans acquired free safety Ed Reed, the ultimate game-changer, and the Ravens released hard-hitting strong safety Bernard Pollard due to cap constraints. With the acquisition of veteran Michael Huff, a natural free safety who is versatile enough to play anywhere in the secondary, fans were able to breath a bit more easily. However, safety and inside linebacker are two areas of significant need that the Ravens will seek to fill during the draft. Lucky for the purple and black birds of Baltimore, the 2013 draft is deep when it comes to talent, notably so at these two particular positions.
Who's Out There: Inside Linebacker
The top three prospects at inside linebacker are Alec Ogletree, Manti Te'o, and Kevin Minter, and it is little disputed that the three will be drafted in that order. Ogletree is essentially a guaranteed first round pick, but Baltimore isn't crying in their crab soup about the fact that the Georgia product is unlikely to be around by the 32nd selection. While the Ravens haven't been reluctant to take on players with so-called character issues, the departures of locker room mainstays Lewis and Reed may change their willingness to take chances on troubled young talent.
Ogletree, whose off-field issues include a DUI arrest early this February and a four game suspension in 2012 for a failed drug test, did not stand out particularly at the combine. His impressive speed, strength, and agility makes him a flashy option as he shines in coverage and on blitzes. However, he has shown a lack of discipline at times when defending the run. He tends to over pursue and doesn't find the best angles to the ball, making missed tackles an area of concern. Ogletree will likely leave the board around 19 or 20, as both the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears look to fill a need with the top talent at inside linebacker in this year's draft.
The Ravens have been associated in many mock drafts with Notre Dame sensation Manti Te'o. In mid-fall, some boards had Te'o projected as top ten talent, but a poor performance in the national championship game, the infamous “catfish” scandal, and an underwhelming 40-time in the combine led his value to plummet.
While the shenanigans involving Te'o's fake online relationship captured headlines, the consensus around the NFL is that the greatest damage was done during his lackluster performance in the national spotlight against Alabama. His inability to impress in the forty at the combine only hurt his stock more. Te'o, who may have been naïve and may have stretched the truth to hide the fact, is much less of a character concern than Ogletree.
The knock on Te'o is as serious as: he may never be an every down linebacker in the NFL. While he showed explosiveness and good instincts throughout the season, he struggled mightily against Alabama's dominant offensive line. Facing the Crimson Tide, Te'o betrayed himself by taking poor angles and missing tackles. And while his pass coverage did improve in 2012, NFL teams still question his speed and athleticism. Currently mock drafts are split on Te'o, with some projecting that he is selected before the Ravens 32nd pick and others predicting that he falls into the second round.
Kevin Minter, an inside linebacker out of Louisiana State University, is an interesting prospect, and one that many analysts have linked to the Ravens. What separates Minter from Ogletree and Te'o is that he lacks the skill sets that make the two stand out, but stands out by having fewer glaring weaknesses. Unlike Ogletree, Minter is excellent in his ability to deal with blocks. His ability to feel through a busy group of tackles makes him stand out against the run. Minter has also been praised for his tackling, which is aided by a good take on angles and the ability to finish on hits.
Minter lacks experience. In fact, he was not a full time starter until 2012. Additionally, his lack of lateral speed causes him to struggle with play action and other misdirection plays. Minter, along with every other inside linebacker in this draft class outside of Ogletree, is questionable when it comes to how he will handle pass coverage at the NFL level. Still, he is the most likely option should the Ravens choose to draft an inside linebacker with their first round pick.
As much as the sun setting on Ray Lewis' last ride has been the biggest story of the mass Exodus of Ravens Super Bowl defenders, it shouldn't come as a shock if the Ravens don't use their first pick to draft an inside linebacker. Lewis may well be the best inside linebacker the NFL has ever seen, but he is almost certainly the last inside linebacker that will define a defense.
In part, Lewis' unnaturally long career has been facilitated by the fact that the NFL has shifted to a pass heavy game that now requires defenses to stock up on a new breed of corner backs—bigger, stronger, faster, smarter—and place priority on developing an explosive pass rush. The legendary number 52's ability to work sideline to sideline and terrorize opposing offenses was paramount to the Ravens defense in a time when the run and the pass were equally relied upon. The Ravens will not be foolish enough to ignore the position, but they also will not feel a need to replace Lewis. Rather, like other NFL teams, they will look to find a tandem of inside linebackers that is effective without being costly.
Later Round Options
Should the Ravens choose to draft a safety, offensive tackle, or wide receiver early in the draft, they should still find some value at inside linebacker. With twelve picks in 2013, the team certainly has options. One name worth mentioning is Jon Bostic, a Florida Gators senior. Bostic is touted as a run stuffer with excellent instincts. He has been credited with having a high motor, which is a catch phrase that Ozzie Newsome and Co. traditionally lean towards in drafting, and is also described as being a vocal leader on the field. Bostic will likely be available late in the second round or even into the third should he catch the attention of the Ravens brass.