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Ravensâ€™ executives, most notably Eric DeCosta, have repeatedly suggested that the team needs to build more depth at the linebacker position in the 2007 NFL Draft. Regrettably yet understandably, Adalius Thomas has moved on and the Ravens have begun to pick up the pieces by re-signing backup Jarrett Johnson.
Given the Ravensâ€™ track record for developing linebackers and the ability of Rex Ryan and his coaching staff to develop schemes tailored to the skill sets of his players, the Ravens are cautiously optimistic despite ADâ€™s departure.
Itâ€™s been said that the Ravens are to linebackers what the Atlanta Braves are to pitchers. Here is a look at some draft eligible players who could join the Ravens developmental program in â€™07:
Patrick Willis: Mississippi 6â€™1â€ 240 4.50
The more Willis plays on a national stage, the more he seems to be noticed. The Senior Bowl was full of highlights of Willis making play after play for the legendary Mike Singletary. Willis is the clear number one linebacker unless a defensive end selected earlier can successfully transition into a successful 3-4 outside linebacker. The Ole Miss backer will need to learn to shed blockers more efficiently at the next level. He will also be challenged by NFL quarterbacks in pass coverage and various zone blitzing schemes where he is asked to drop back on occasion.
The Ravens: All indications point to Willis being gone well before the Ravens pick. Some mock drafts have Willis just outside the top 10 overall selections and falling into the waiting arms of Mike Nolan and the 49ers. Other drafts have Willis falling into the mid-twenties or to the Patriots. If Willis does happen to be available at 29, it will be very tough for Ozzie and company to pass on him. That said it is unlikely that the Ravens will have the good fortune of the Rebel defensive leader dropping to 29 particularly when you consider the Patriots needs and their two picks prior to the Ravens in Round 1.
Buster Davis: Florida State 5â€™10â€ 244 4.69
Davis is an intriguing talent out of Florida State who is another athlete trying to prove that two inches shouldnâ€™t mean much in the draft. Even so, he is being touted as â€œthe next undersized linebackerâ€ in the mold of Ray Lewis and Mike Singletary. He does have the strong instincts desired of a middle linebacker and is quicker than most other players at the position. While reportedly the subject of extensive criticism from Mike Singletary during Senior Bowl practices, Davis still seemed to understand assignments well at Florida State and executed well on game day, even when he became the focal point of the Seminole defense in 2006 after the departure of more recognized teammates. Faults of Davis tend to focus on his use of speed to attempt to run around blocks rather than attack at the point and some limitations as a pass defender.
The Ravens: If the Ravens are seeking a second round middle-linebacker with natural instincts who might some day be able to start, the 2006 USA Today All-American could be a nice selection though many may view that choice as a reach feeling Davis would be a better fit in the middle of the third round. Given the disparity, and the Ravensâ€™ typical refusal to overvalue a position and instead select the best player remaining on the board, Davis doesnâ€™t appear to fit well into these plans. Further, if there is ever a team where comparative lack of effort in practice gets a player into the doghouse and on the sidelines on Sundays it is the Ravens as evidenced by hard working Travis Taylor staying on the field and Sunday-only Randy Hymes often relegated to limited or bench-warming duties.
Anthony Spencer: Purdue 6â€™2â€ 261 4.73
Billed as a defensive end, Spencerâ€™s workouts and size give credence to his ability to play the outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense where he could put a hand down and rush the passer or be able to play a traditional outside linebacker role while Terrell Suggs could shift towards the line. His ability to make plays was demonstrated quite well in 2006, recording 10.5 sacks and nearly 27 tackles for losses for the Boilermakers of the Big Ten. There is also hope that Spencer may be able to add more muscle to his frame without loss of quickness, potentially resembling a slightly slower Adalius Thomas at 270 pounds with a 40 yard dash in the area of 4.7 seconds. Unfortunately the faults of AD compare to those of Spencer, having difficulty with larger blockers and a reliance on speed over moves or power.
The Ravens: Spencer is likely to go in the first round after surprising scouts and commentators with his speed and agility. Even so the Ravens may take a pass on Spencer and look to a player who can start immediately. That would likely not be the case if Spencer becomes a Raven. There is also a question of the comparative value of the fourth or fifth college defensive end as opposed to a top guard or third tackle.
There isnâ€™t an overabundance of information available on second day prospects, but one that may intrigue the Ravens is Justin Durant out of Hampton. While recording a noteworthy 4.59 at the combine, Durant brings rare athleticism to the position. His straight line speed is certainly not common among backers and it affords the luxury of beating running backs to the edge as it aids in pass coverage. Given his performances in college he is a solid open field tackler. Weaknesses are the obvious that one might expect from a more minor level program as Durant might be more of an athlete than a linebacker. Other faults include current Ray Lewis like difficulties in disengaging from blocks and the lack of awe inspiring skills as a pass rusher.
The Ravens: Durant may be the kind of project to groom behind current middle linebacker Ray Lewis to be ready to play in one to two years. His skill set matches up nicely when compared to Lewis and the Ravens tend to base their defense around utilizing the defensive line to eat up as many blockers as possible to allow the linebackers to use their athleticism to run all over the field and make plays. These features combined with skill in the open field could lead to Durant being a value pick for the Ravens being able to immediately contribute on special teams and potentially start within one to two years.
Alexander is a popular player among Ravens draft nick fans for the second round selection. A player who is all over the field, his reportedly good speed allows him to make all sorts of plays in space. However, there are constant comparisons to cover-two linebackers where the focus is the ability to play in space and utilize speed over anchoring the point of attack. This also seems to fit the recent Ravens system where linebackers tend to make plays while linemen often deal with point of attack issues. These problems on the point of attack have also caused Alexander problems in shooting gaps and he also lacks the requisite hands for the passing game. Even with these issues, the Oklahoma product does seem to fit the current model for an outside linebacker for the Ravens and has the potential to be able to immediately contribute in a rotational capacity and potentially challenge Johnson for playing time.
The Ravens: Alexander appears to be available at the end of the second round and is very attractive to fans that look for playmakers with skill sets that compare to current or former successful Ravens. Assuming that the Sooner will be able to use his speed in space as Adalius Thomas did in recent years he could be a very effective starter or provide high quality depth at the outside linebacker position for the Ravens amorphous defense. Comparisons to quality cover two linebackers might cause Alexander to be selected before the Ravens can pick at 61 as this in vogue defense is still gaining popularity.
Paul Posluszny: Penn State 6â€™ 1â€ 238 4.65
Posluszny is one of those players that is solid, plays well, and gives good effort but when it comes time to record numbers this Nittany Lion finds himself out of the elite class. However, this is a rare two-time Bednarik Award winner who consistently played well on a talented Joe Pa defense of recent years. The Penn State product has also excelled in the classroom graduating with a 3.57 in finance. This obviously is no guarantee of success, see Craig Krenzel out of Ohio State, but it does belie an intelligence that was well applied in his college days. Posluszny also differs from Krenzel in being a bona-fide star as opposed to a game manager or lesser player on a powerful running offense. Many forget the knee injury suffered in the Orange Bowl, and it takes more than an offseason to fully recover speed and confidence in a knee. These factors combined make the linebacker very attractive to teams looking for a workmanlike player with upside and intellect. In coverage, he is more than adequate, though often gives too much cushion which allows underneath completions.
The Ravens: A player that is compared to players such as Buschi or Hawk certainly attracts notice, however, a first round pick on a linebacker may not be the best move for the Ravens as there may be substantial talent lying around in the cornerback and offensive line positions at the end of the first round. The Patriots also present a serious problem in regards to Posluszny even being available at 29 with many mockers having this Penn State product being selected with the first of the Patriotsâ€™ two first round picks. If in fact sitting around at 29, Paul Posluszny is sure to create debate in the war room.
Lawrence Timmons: Florida State 6â€™ 7/8â€ 234 4.59
Another in a recent string of excellent linebackers out of Florida State, Timmons only started his final year. This might not be as bad as it sounds as those overshadowing players include the likes of Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson. The Seminole product has closing speed to make plays all over the field, but struggles at times with pass coverage. He occasionally guesses on the routes of receivers and appears to struggle a bit when asked to make plays for the ball outside the frame of his body, both of which appear to be common faults among collegiate linebackers. The advantage of the limited starting experience is less wear on the tires coming into the NFL, potentially indicative of a longer career.
The Ravens: Timmons appears to be raw around the edges and the Ravens have been reportedly looking for players ready to step in and contribute more immediately. Even if Timmons was ready to start, the 2007 starters at outside linebacker appear to be set in stone and Timmons would have to compete with Jarrett Johnson for playing time. All of these factors and the supposed first round status garnered by Timmons may lead the Ravens away from the Flordia State product and towards other players ready to step in and play immediately or to another position with more ready to play talent available.