When it comes to defensive tandems, the Baltimore Ravens have two of the best in the AFC; Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker, as well as C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith at inside linebacker.
The four starting linebackers proved to be some of the strongest supporters on defense in 2014, with Dumervil and Mosley earning Pro Bowl nods.
Heading into this season, not much has changed on the edge or at inside linebacker. Inside, Smith and Mosley are penned as the starting duo again, with no notable additions.
At outside linebacker, the departure of Pernell McPhee perhaps in part inspired the draft selection of Za’Darius Smith, who should have a role on defense in year one.
What should be expected from the linebackers this season?
Notable new addition: Za’Darius Smith – After losing McPhee to the Chicago Bears in free agency, the edge depth was thin, and adding Smith in the fourth round of the draft was a no-brainer.
The versatile Smith is not a particularly dynamic athlete, but is balanced enough to provide support when rushing the passer as well as setting the edge in run defense. In year one, with Courtney Upshaw being the only proven backup at outside linebacker, Smith figures to earn his fair share of defensive snaps.
Upshaw has failed to noticeably grow as a pass rusher during his career, and if Smith can provide value in that department, he will be a key piece in relief of Dumervil and Suggs.
Player with most to prove: Arthur Brown – At the time of Brown’s arrival to Baltimore, he seemed as if he was a draft selection tracking towards a productive career as a starter for the Ravens. But now entering year three, the question that begs asking is: “Will he ever start a game for the team?”
Barring an injury to Smith or Mosley, Brown is not primed to crack the starting lineup anytime soon, and given his minimal role with the team in 2014, his roster spot for 2015 may be in jeopardy.
With Zachary Orr and Albert McClellan both proving to be valuable commodities on special teams, Brown may be better off proving his worth on defense, where defensive coordinator Dean Pees could benefit from a legitimate backup to spell Smith or Mosley when needed.
The once promising, instinctive Brown is in a make-or-break year, and a strong training camp is necessary.
Player to follow: Courtney Upshaw – Entering his fourth and final year of his rookie contract, Upshaw is in a different situation than many past Ravens in the same position. Oftentimes, players in Baltimore outplay their rookie contracts and sign elsewhere in free agency because they are simply too expensive to keep around.
But in Upshaw’s case, will the Ravens even want to pay him a big deal after this season? After three years, the Upshaw pick earns about a C; a player who has been neither good nor poor during his career. Offering little as a pass rusher (three career sacks), Upshaw has found his niche as a run stopper, but has taken the backseat to Suggs and Dumervil over the past two seasons.
For the Ravens’ sake, the contract year for Upshaw could improve his play, thus giving the defense a legitimate, quality backup edge defender. If Pees can find the right balance of Upshaw and Smith in rotational roles behind Dumervil and Suggs, the Ravens could have a potent outside linebacker corps this season.
Potential surprise: Smith outplays Upshaw this season – As noted, the play of Upshaw during his Ravens career has hardly been exciting. The average performance could open the door for Smith, who is a more balanced defender.
If Smith can develop in July and August, come September, he can be expected to contribute on defense. By season’s end, he may be playing better football than the one-dimensional Upshaw.