There isn't a more star-studded defense in the NFL than the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, four Ravens defenders were named to the Pro Bowl, which tied the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the NFL. This is an indictment of the Ravens place among the NFL's elite defenses and the star players that have helped them get there.
Yet as star-studded as the Ravens defense is, it's getting clear that many of the players are getting up there in age. This fact is highlighted by the two future hall-of-famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, players whose retirement is now a major storyline at the end of every season. The end is near for both of them, and the Ravens know that now is the time for them to attempt to search the draft for the players that could be long-term solutions for when the inevitable happens.
Both the linebacker and safety positions will be addressed in the draft. It is also possible that the Ravens could try to pick up another pass rusher to complement Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.
Here are 10 defensive players that were studs in college and could thrive on the Ravens defense.
It would be fitting if the Ravens address their need at the outside linebacker position by picking up a player who can play defensive end and linebacker. Ronnell Lewis from Oklahoma is billed as one of the top outside linebackers in the draft and he also has some experience playing as a defensive end. Putting him on the opposite side of Terrell Suggs could really make for a scary Ravens pass rush.
Lewis is strong against the run, which is something the Ravens have been doing well for years now. Lewis also has a great burst to get to the ball carrier and bring him down. He demonstrated his strength at the combine by bench pressing 36 reps of 225 pounds, which was the best among linebackers.
Lewis could go in the first round, however he's more likely a second or third rounder. The Ravens interest in him will likely depend on whether or not they feel that confident in Paul Krueger being able to step as the new starting outside linebacker. Even if they do feel confident, Lewis could still be a good pickup especially since he could potentially switch to defensive end.
Harrison Smith is ranked second on Mike Maycock's list of top safeties in this year's draft. The fifth year senior was the captain of Notre Dame's defense last season and he was clearly one of the top players on that defense. Smith is now the only player in Notre Dame football history to register more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in a career.
One of the only real weaknesses that Smith has shown so far is his lack of speed. He makes up for this deficiency though by having strong play anticipation and frequently putting himself in a position to make a play on the ball. He's one of the few safeties that can be described as a tackling machine with 214 total tackles in his career.
If the Ravens select Smith, it would probably be in the second or third round. Another strike against Smith is that he plays strong safety, which is an area the Ravens are currently set at with Bernard Pollard starting. Smith would either need to come in as backup or have to make the transition to free safety to supplant Ed Reed.
If the Ravens want to address their pass rushing need in the draft, Devon Still could be a player that they look at. He's currently projected as a late first-rounder, and many draft experts view him as the fifth best player at his position. This hasn't really deterred Still who says that he thinks he is the best defensive tackle in the draft.
The senior out of Penn State has started 25 games over the past two seasons and he led the Nittany Lions with 17 tackles for loss in 2011. That season did end on a down note though as Still suffered a turf toe injury to his big toe while playing in the TicketCity Bowl. This nagging toe injury has hurt his combine performances, perhaps dropping him a little lower in the first round than he would go if he was healthy.
Although he rushes the passer well, Still rarely gets to record the sack. He only got 4.5 sacks last season which was the most he's had during his college career. Despite this sack problem, Still could be a good fit for the Ravens since he can read the play and react, which is ideal for a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.
It's crazy just how far a bad combine performance made Vontaze Burfict drop on draft boards. His meteoric collapse has now brought him from first round pick all the way to possibly going undrafted. It's no surprise though given his out of control personality and the extremely embarrassing fact that he has looked out of shape during the scouting process.
For now Burfict can't expect to be taken before the sixth round. In retrospect, it's easy to see that Burfict's football career started spiraling out of control last season as he hurt his team with extremely dumb penalties. It's just now with his growing reputation as a headcase and his awful combine numbers, it's hard for most teams to find a reason to have any interest in him.
The Ravens could be one of those few teams that still have interest. If Burfict can get back in shape and work out his attitude issues, he has enough talent to become a star defensive player in the NFL. In a strong locker room like the Ravens, Burfict could still thrive and build on the promise that he showed during his freshman and sophomore years at Arizona State.
Akiem Hicks is the only player from a Canadian school to be invited to this year's NFL Combine. He's a transfer that tried playing at two schools, including a year at LSU, before he settled for playing at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
Hick's main reason for leaving LSU was because of an investigation of possible recruiting violations. Hicks did a good job putting the scandal behind him as he has thrived in Regina, leading the Canada West conference with 6.5 sacks during the 2011 season. He also led his team with 38 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Hicks would likely best be suited as a five technique defensive end at the next level. He's good at holding his ground at the point of attack and can also shed his blocker well when he is lined up outside. As a very raw prospect, Hick would have to settle for a developmental role with the Ravens should they try to go for him in the sixth or seventh round.
If you're looking solely at mock drafts, Dont'a Hightower is the defensive player that the Ravens are most likely to draft at No. 29 in the first round. It's no surprise either cause it would make a lot of sense for the junior out of Alabama to wear purple and black in the NFL.
Hightower is one of those linebackers who is very good at the fundamentals. He is very good at tackling but also has great speed for a linebacker. During his last season at Alabama, he was the captain of a national-championship winning team with a vaunted defense that ranked No. 1 nationally in all five major categories.
Hightower is definitely a player that could also step up and become the eventual successor to Ray Lewis. Even before Lewis retires, Hightower could use his versatility to contribute as a pass rusher. And when considering that Ozzie Newsome has previously shown a lot of love to other Alabama players, Hightower certainly seems like a great pick for the Ravens.
Zach Brown's performance at the NFL Combine has solidified his position as the fastest and most athletic outside linebacker in the draft. Also a track runner, Brown set a school record in the indoor 60 meters with a time of 6.72 seconds in 2009. He's now gone on to lead all linebackers tested at the combine with a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
His raw athleticism certainly stands out as one of his most impressive traits. However speed can only do so much for a player and his smaller size could hurt his potential as a linebacker.
Currently ranked as one of the top five outside linebackers by most draft experts, Brown should go in the first round. For the Ravens to get him they may need to trade up or even hope that he drops for some reason. Like Ronnell Lewis, Brown would also provide the Ravens with an outside linebacker who could hopefully become the replacement to Jarrett Johnson.
Mark Barron is the consensus top safety in this year's draft class. This year's draft class has been viewed as one of the weakest in recent memory but that is no knock on Barron. If anything this safety class has made Barron look even better as likely the only safety from this year's draft class that could step in and become a starter early.
Last year Barron was a consensus All-American and All-SEC player while serving as a leader for Alabama's fierce defense. His exceptional read and react skills make him a natural fit for the strong safety position. Barron is a textbook tackler and his balance of patience and aggression makes him a dangerous matchup against the offense.
One major issue that Barron had was a run-in with the police after a car accident. The police arrested him after believing that he was not telling the truth about the accident. It might have been a one-time thing but still these character concerns could potentially cause some teams to pass on Barron.
Because of how dominant the Alabama Crimson Tide's defense was, many of their star players are projected to go early in the NFL Draft. I also feel like many of these players could be Ravens as well which is why I have three of them on this list.
The third Alabama player on this list is outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw played outside of Dont'a Hightower and he focused more on being a pass rush threat. In addition to his pass threat skills, Upshaw has great strength in the run game and is overall a solid football player.
There is a bit of some debate as to whether Upshaw should play as a linebacker or as a defensive end. It is possible that due to a lack of agility and speed, Upshaw could have to become a defensive end. Regardless of what position he plays, Upshaw is an intriguing prospect that would be a great fit for the Ravens.
Jansen Jackson is an extremely gifted defensive back who has spent time at cornerback and at safety. Like the video shows, he can really lay out opposing players. As a freakish athlete with the ability to make big-play interceptions, Jackson might be the safety that is most likely to be Ed Reed's successor.
The main thing that people are holding against Jackson is major character issues. In November 2009, he was charged in an armed robbery attempt for which he was ultimately found innocent. Two years later the Tennessee Volunteers ultimately dismissed Jackson after he failed multiple drug tests.
Jackson instead transferred to McNeese State for his junior year. Now that he's going into the NFL, he really needs to find a way to become more mature. These maturity issues have dropped Jackson to a third round projection where the Ravens would be more likely to get him.