The retirement of recently signed Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Rolando McClain on Wednesday came as a complete surprise, mainly because McClain is only 23 years old.
However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he won’t be playing for the Ravens this season. In what was considered a “low risk” signing, the organization gave McClain a second chance in the NFL (even though he didn’t really deserve one).
While it was a low risk move in terms of money (no guaranteed pay), it wasn’t low risk in terms of preparing the defense for the 2013 season. After losing Dannell Ellerbe in free agency, the Ravens were thin at inside linebacker, so they signed McClain and drafted Arthur Brown in the second round of the draft.
But with McClain now gone, the Ravens are essentially back to where they were before the draft. While Brown will likely step in and assume one of the two starting inside linebacker positions, the team still has uncertainty with the other starting job and the depth behind the starters.
Veteran Jameel McClain is more than capable of assuming the other starting role, but he is returning from a spinal injury that he suffered last season. While the injury didn’t require surgery and all signs point to him being ready for training camp, no one will truly know if he’s ready for football again until he sees action in either a preseason game or a full contact practice.
It’s easy to say McClain is ready to play, but until he tests the strength of his spinal cord by going full speed at a ball carrier for a tackle, it’s tough to say whether or not he’ll be fully ready for the regular season.
Aside from McClain and Brown, the only other inside linebacker on the roster that appears to be capable of assuming a starting role is Josh Bynes, who filled in admirably at the end of the 2012 regular season. He earned three starts and showed some flashes of being a capable starter in the league, but there is not any certainty that he’ll be able to assume that type of role for a full season.
Then there’s Albert McClellan, who played primarily at outside linebacker in 2012 but may be capable of moving inside as a backup if needed. The Ravens are also working on moving former defensive tackle Bryan Hall to inside linebacker, although it’d be unrealistic to expect any success at the position by Hall in his first year.
Experimenting with the possibility of giving second-year linebacker Courtney Upshaw some reps inside is also an intriguing option, as he could contribute as a thumper in running situations. However, he wouldn’t be able to be relied on as a coverage linebacker.
Outside of Brown, McClain, and Bynes, there isn’t much stability for the Ravens in the middle of their 3-4 defense. Those three should have solidified roster spots for the 2013 season, assuming McClain is fully healthy. Outside of them, there are more than a few unanswered questions.
Brown is the only inside linebacker that the Ravens used a draft pick on, and they didn’t necessarily delve into the linebacker market in the undrafted free agency period.
So, if Brown, McClain, and Bynes aren’t capable of assuming the majority of the linebacker duties this season, the free agency market may have to be revisited by Baltimore. Right now, veterans such as Brian Urlacher and Bart Scott are available, but ideally, the Ravens may just have to wait until training camp, when they can either sign a veteran who is released by another team, or work out a low-risk trade.
Regardless of the path the Ravens take regarding the inside linebacker position, there are still many unanswered questions. For now, they’ll just have to play it out in training camp and see who emerges as the primary contributors.