Positional Overview: Linebacker
Linebacker is an interesting position for the Ravens. While needs do exist, there is a level of talent and intrigue that could manifest itself into new layers of diversity. Which was all a fancy way of saying the Ravens could field a much more modern looking defense in 2017.
Right now, the biggest elephant in the room is the lack of a consistent pass rush. Also, who replaces Zachary Orr at Will Linebacker? Do any of the younger guys on the back end of the roster emerge or does that spot need more reinforcements as well?
Let’s take a look at the roster as it currently stands:
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Restricted Free Agents
Zachary Orr (Retired)
Starting level pass rusher
Competition at Will Linebacker
Terrell Suggs is returning for his 15th season with the Ravens. Even through a torn biceps, Suggs remained productive. He did his typical yeoman’s work as a run defender and chipped in with 8 sacks. Suggs is a Hall of Fame caliber player, and he’s also 34 years old. It’s fair to ask how much longer he can do it. He’s not a guy you’d make much money betting against but selecting his heir apparent early in the 2017 draft would be the responsible move.
How Kamalei Correa is used this season might be the most interesting storyline to follow. Like many others, I griped when I heard they’d be moving him to inside linebacker. It felt like he was being terribly miscast but when I dug deeper at his pro’s and con’s the move started to make more sense. His 31” arms are not ideal length for an edge player. He also didn’t use his hands well in college, and he needed to get stronger. That’ll get you swallowed up versus quality offensive tackles.
What Correa does do well as a player right now is run for days, hit and blitz which in the short term makes him a much better fit as a Will Linebacker. He’d bring a blitz threat at the position we haven’t seen in quite some time. I’ve long felt the base defense lacked spontaneity. Correa is a wildcard that can unlock some of that. Unleashing his athleticism while he fine tunes his game makes a lot of sense. This doesn’t preclude him from playing on the edge, they just can be more selective about how and when he does.
We may have all low-balled Matt Judon as a prospect. I thought he’d be a good sub package rusher but I wondered how he’d perform when he was the greatest physical specimen on the field. Then he gets to the preseason and it looks like he’s still playing against Findlay. Obviously once the regular season started he wasn’t nearly as dominant but in most games, he showed the traits that lead you to believe he’s going to be a good NFL pass rusher. What stood out most to me is that he showed just as many plays of really good run defense. He still has some way to go in that area but his length, strength and ability to stack and shed is impressive. The hope is that with experience he’ll recognize things quicker and improve his edge setting. If he can do those 2 things he’s a starting caliber NFL edge player.
Za’Darius Smith followed up his great 2015 debut with a not so great 2016. He started the year essentially as a full-time player and it didn’t go well. He lost contain several times in the run game and didn’t offer much as an edge rusher. His edge rush results weren’t a surprise considering his athletic profile. The run defense part of it was a bit puzzling because that’s where he excelled in college. Where he continues to show his most promise is as an interior pass rusher. He did so much damage there in 2015 inciting Pernell McPhee vibes. Even during his rough 2016 he flashed inside (see week 10 vs Cleveland). Going into 2017, interior disruptor should be the first line on Za’Darius Smith’s business cards.
Albert McClellan was his normal, reliable jack of all trades self in 2016. How defensive coordinator Dean Pees employs McClellan in 2017 will say a lot about where this defense is headed. If the young guys don’t step up as edge setters he’ll play a lot of early down snaps. McClellan will be solid per usual, but he won’t provide splash plays. You could say the same if he ends up having to play at inside linebacker but the results could get dicey with him in coverage. If he returns to being primarily a special teamer, it means the Ravens answered some questions at the Will spot.
Patrick Onwuasor could be an option as a coverage linebacker. The former college safety is a physical striker with plus open field speed for position. He showed an ability to go up and make plays on the ball at the college level, a trait I’m sure the Ravens had in mind when they made the position switch. Now he’s too small to hold up inside vs the run but he’s interesting in coverage and has special teams value.
Brennen Beyer ending last season on the active roster and will return in 2017 with a chance to carve a more permanent position on the squad. Beyer’s fundamentals are impressive. He’s really sound and sets the edge well and on a team that currently has questions in that department, he has a chance to stick.
Free agent options
ILB Gerald Hodges: Coming out of Penn State, Hodges figured to make his mark in pass coverage but as a starter last season in San Francisco he ranked 12th among inside linebackers versus the run. It would not surprise me if he was on the Ravens post draft radar, especially if they don’t take an inside linebacker on day one or day two.
OLB Elvis Dumervil: Could we see another reunion of sorts? Dumervil struggled through a foot injury last season but when in the lineup, he still showed some pass rushing prowess. While his return to Baltimore would likely hinge on them striking out in the draft (something they absolutely can’t afford) or an injury. Maybe it gets late in the process, he hasn’t found a fit and the Ravens get him at a good number and a secondary role he’s amenable to.
Derek Barnett, OLB Tennessee: His bend, motor and hand use really, really stand out when you watch him. If you dig fundamentals, Barnett is your guy. Scary thing is he could still stand to add to his pass rusher repertoire. Because of his play strength and ability to set the edge he’d slot in immediately as a 3-down starter. His production and absolute relentless play style screams “Ravens draft fit”. Barnett’s athletic profile puts his ceiling into question, but his floor looks good. We all know the Ravens like to hit doubles in the first round.
Projection: 1st Round
Takkarist McKinley, OLB UCLA: McKinley is on the opposite end of the edge prospect spectrum when compared to Barnett. “Takk” is an imposing looking prospect with a nitromethane level burst. Sometimes you just need a guy that can get to a spot…on sheer explosion, Takk can get to that spot. His motor is always running and when you couple that with his rugged play style, there’s a lot to like. Unlike Barnett, his hands need a lot of work. He also won’t give you much bend or change of direction. If he can stay healthy and develop the more technical aspects of his game, the ceiling is the roof…or the limit, the sky.
Projection: 1st round
Tim Williams, OLB Alabama: I’m giving you all flavors here. Williams is a lean, athletic edge threat. What stood out the most for me was the subtle movements and change of direction he makes as a rusher. It opens up so much for him in setting up offensive tackles. He has tremendous initial burst, good bend, hand use and a good overall pass rush arsenal…there’s a lot there. People have concerns about him as a run defender but I think that is much more about personnel than his ability. If you have the talent to play the run effectively without him, why not temper his snaps with the intention of unleashing him on 3rd downs? He has character concerns the team will obviously have to sort through. Ozzie Newsome’s Alabama ties make that uniquely convenient. If he checks out, Williams would bring some real juice to the pass rush.
Projection: 2nd round
Blair Brown, ILB Ohio: Another guy who just plays like a Ravens draft target. Brown is compact (a nice way to say short), physical with a great closing burst. He’s a sure tackler who attacks blocks with a warrior’s mentality. He’ll need to refine that and use his hands better when taking on NFL blockers. Could be a plus blitzer due to his timing and explosiveness. At the least I think he’s a core special teamer with possible 2-down potential.
Projection: 5th round
Marquel Lee, ILB Wake Forest: Lee offers more of the prototypical size for the position. I like his hand use, he’s a sound player who could contribute versus the run…maybe even on the outside in a pinch. He’s not the fastest guy, and not a striker, just gets the job done. A real steady Eddie.
Projection: 5th round
Tanner Vallejo, ILB Boise State: Comfortable lateral mover, instinctive player with solid closing burst. He’s tough and does use his hands well but his size and length limitations will prevent him from playing on run downs. However, I think he’s could contribute on passing downs as nickel LB and become a core special teamer, ala Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Projection: 6th round