OWINGS MILLS — Terrell Suggs’ partially torn Achilles tendon dictates that he’ll spend at least the next several months watching rookie Courtney Upshaw line up at outside linebacker.
As far as the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is concerned, though, the Ravens’ pass rush is in good hands with Upshaw.
Based on Suggs’ initial glimpses of the Ravens’ top draft pick on the practice field, Upshaw is well-equipped for the rigors of the NFL.
“From what I’ve seen on the film, he’s been playing pretty good," Suggs said. "He’s ahead of where I was when I came in my rookie year. He clearly knows the game, and they’re moving him around."
As Suggs recuperates from surgery, the Ravens’ current plan is to plug in Paul Kruger as his primary replacement at rush outside linebacker.
Upshaw has been lining up at strongside linebacker, Jarret Johnson’s old position.
However, Upshaw has gotten work at both outside linebacker spots during minicamps and organized team activities.
"It isn’t just him playing the rush, he’s playing a little bit of everything," said Suggs, who could miss the majority of the season after undergoing surgery May 8. "So, I think that’s awesome, and I’m really excited to see how the puzzle comes together when we’re all here. Until then, I’ve got 100 percent confidence in the kid.”
So do the Ravens based on their investment in Upshaw.
Drafted in the second round out of Alabama, Upshaw received a four-year contract worth $5.296 million.
That includes a total of $3.587 million in guaranteed money, including a $2.292 million signing bonus.
At 6-foot-2, 272 pounds, Upshaw is expected to provide a stout presence against the run. He also recorded 9 1/2 sacks last season for the Crimson Tide with 51 tackles, 17 for losses and one interception.
"Courtney, like all the rookies, is making the transition, and it’s not an easy transition," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The game is faster. Even at that level, the game is played faster and is more complex scheme-wise. He’s doing real well. He’s a good player, and he’s going to play well this year.”
For his career, Upshaw had 140 tackles and 16 1/2 sacks.
In an effort to increase his mobility, especially in pass coverage, Upshaw has dropped six to seven pounds since arriving in Baltimore.
“I wouldn’t say anything intimidates me," Upshaw said. "It’s just the simple fact that it’s a physical game, and you’ve just got to go out and be physical. You can’t go and be a pushover in this game.”
“Just by getting in the playbook, learning the plays, helping this defense, I feel like I can make an immediate impact. It’s just on me to come in and get in that playbook and learn it.”
Assimilating to the NFL has been a bit more seamless for Upshaw given his background in a pro-style defense for the Crimson Tide.
He played for Nick Saban, a former Miami Dolphins head coach and Cleveland Browns assistant where he learned from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Some of defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ scheme has parallels with what Saban taught Upshaw to develop him into an All-American and an All-Southeastern Conference selection.
"Just the fact that I played a little bit at Alabama, it helps me, but just learning the terminology here is the key to coming in and getting it done," Upshaw said. "The terminology is different in some ways, but with coach Pees, we talked about it, and he said that it’s the same thing basically if you really think about it. And actually going back, studying it and repping it is the same way, the technique, everything.”
Suggs generated a career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season, production that Upshaw isn’t expected to match.
What Upshaw is establishing, though, is that he’s getting over being star struck by sharing a huddle with two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“Just the fact that I get to play with Ray Lewis and actually get to see him in action and be on the same field with him is special," Upshaw said.
The Ravens have long had a saying about if they have to teach a player motivation or passion, then he won’t fit into their locker room.
That doesn’t appear to be an issue with Upshaw, who has a reputation for being relentless on the field and hungry to learn.
"I just love his motor," Lewis said. "He’s a kid that just loves football. Trust me, forget the mental errors, because that’s just life. I don’t care what year you’re in, you’re going to make mental errors.
"But the way he approaches the game, his speed towards the game, and the way he flies around to the football, you really appreciate watching somebody like him.”