The Baltimore Ravens season is over, but fans still have the offseason to look forward to. After a successful 2008 campaign, they are looking to improve in certain areas this offseason. So with the coming of the offseason, comes a position-by-position look at what the Ravens have to do. Today: linebackers.
The Ravens have always had a great defense throughout their team history. A great defense depends on a great linebacking corps. The Ravens have always have had great a great linebacking corps to make a great defense. This year, the Ravens had a great defense due in great part to their great linebacking corps.
Sorry if that was confusing and/or idiotic for some of you.
Basically, this year, the Ravens linebackers played very well on all accounts.
The leader and most recognizable face of the Ravens, Ray Lewis, had a personal renaissance this season. He played in all 16 games for the first time since 2003 and led the defense to be one of the best in the NFL.
However, he is currently a free agent and is not a fan of the "hometown discount" that some with the Ravens are discussing. He is openly talking about a move to the Jets or Cowboys which irks some Ravens fans.
However, the Ravens brass are open to any move to keep Ray around, which is proven by their recent moves such as releasing Chris McAlister to free up cap room and potentially franchising Terrell Suggs.
Speaking of Mr. T-Sizzle, Suggs was another player who had a great year. The Pro-Bowler had 69 tackles, 8 sacks, and 2 interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns. He also showed his toughness in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh where he played very well despite a strained shoulder.
As previously stated, the Ravens are prepared to franchise Suggs within the next couple of days in order to gain more cap flexibility to sign Lewis and Jason Brown. Suggs was franchised at the start of this season and was not happy about it, but considering that he brought up the "hometown discount" suggestion and will most likely get a better contract with the Ravens this time next year, he'll probably be a much happier camper now.
The inside linebacker alongside Lewis this season was Bart Scott, who had a good, although not spectacular season. Scott had 82 tackles and 1.5 sacks and made some big plays, but was not a game-changer such as Lewis or Suggs. He seems more like a product of a great Ravens defensive system which is quite prevalent in Ravens history.
Scott is willing to take less for the Ravens, but he can easily get a big pay-day from multiple teams. He is not as big of a priority to keep for the team as Lewis, Brown, or Suggs at this moment and if he is to walk for more money, look for Baltimore to take an inside backer in the draft or groom Tavares Gooden for that position.
Speaking of Tavares Gooden, let's talk about Tavares Gooden. The third-round rookie from Miami only played in four games this season, before being placing on injured reserve with a hip injury.
He managed to get five tackles on the season, mainly on special teams, but he looks like he could be a very good player in the future for Baltimore's defense. He is very athletic and has a great group to learn from both in players and coaches.
The other starter alongside Lewis, Suggs, and Scott was sixth-year player Jarret Johnson. On a Baltimore defense where there is hard to find a weak link, Johnson may be the closest thing to one. Not to say that he is not a good player. He is very solid (56 tackles and 4 sacks this season).
It's just that he makes big mistakes, both physical and mental (as exhibited by the first Steelers game where he had a crucial personal foul penalty) and his skills are limited to that of a pass-rusher and nothing more. The Ravens should work with some of their younger players to replace him in the future.
One of the younger players that could potentially be the new starting outside backer next season is undrafted rookie Jameel McClain. McClain showed flashes of what could be a very special player in the future. He had two safeties for the season (tied for NFL record), one which was off a blocked punt against the Eagles.
He had 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks and made plays everywhere whenever he was on the field. Like Johnson, the main skill he brings is a pass-rusher. But he has better field awareness and athleticism than Johnson, which could play a part in him being a starting linebacker in the future.
The Ravens sixth-round pick from 2007, Prescott Burgess, was on injured reserve all season with a wrist injury, but he is a capable special teams player and occasional outside pass rusher, so his return next season could provide some good depth.
Another second-year player is Antwan Barnes. A big-hitter (known to many as the guy who laid out the Eagles punter unnecessarily in preseason), Barnes had 14 tackles this season but was not used much on defense. The coaching staff feels that he is not refined as a linebacker enough yet, but his raw skills and athleticism could culminate in him being a rotation guy for the defense in the future rather than just a depth player.
Position Grade: B+ (note: the grade is for the positional situation, rather than simply how well the players played during the season.)
How to improve
Obviously, resigning Ray Lewis would be a great start. As I said, Baltimore has prepared for that by releasing McAlister and getting reading to franchise Suggs. Resigning Scott would be helpful, but it is not a definite priority if he asks for too much money or if it interferes with other goals for the team.
If Scott can't be retained, either shift Johnson over to inside backer until Gooden is ready, or work with Gooden or one of the other young players immediately to start next season.
An ideal situation (at least for me) would be to re-sign Lewis and Scott, and replace Johnson with McClain at the outside linebacker spot. If Scott can't be resigned, start Gooden at inside alongside Lewis and McClain outside.
I know it seems questionable to start two unexperienced players in this situation, but it could work out for the Ravens, especially with the defensive veterans and coaching staff who help ease the players into their roles.
As far as improving personell goes, the only moves the Ravens should make are those to improve depth for the inside linebackers. Whether it be drafting one in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft or signing a veteran such as Napoleon Harris or Antwan Peek.
Next edition: Secondary (...oh boy)