Before we begin, let it be known that is impossible to ever replace what Ray Lewis has done for and meant to the city of Baltimore.
Ray was selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft with the 26th overall pick, and once Lewis was draped in the purple, white and black he started his path of destruction while compiling record-breaking stats, multiple awards and bringing home Baltimore's first Lombardi Trophy in 2000.
Ray Lewis has been the identity and the face of this franchise for the past 15 seasons and Ravens fans everywhere are dreading the day Lewis no longer emerges from the smoke-filled tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium to perform his signature pregame dance while Nelly's "Hot In Herre" blasts over the sound system.
As deflating as that day may be, the Ravens must somehow move on and proactively look ahead to find a new general to command the middle of the field. Lewis said himself that he believes this year the Ravens have enough pieces to win a Super Bowl and that he is only playing this game for another ring. Now, with a lingering toe injury, it seems that Ray's days as one of the most feared middle linebackers in the game are coming to an end.
Where do the Ravens turn to fill the shoes of Lewis? Well, the answer is certainly not on the current roster. We all (unfortunately) remember the Kyle Boller experiment in brief combination with an aged Steve McNair, which didn't quite work out for the Ravens.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome, also known as Baltimore's NFL draft guru, had enough of Boller and knew it was time to find a new quarterback. As the 2008 NFL Draft rolled around, Newsome finally found his man and traded up to grab his future franchise QB from University of Delaware, Joe Flacco.
Likewise, all signs point to Newsome beginning the search for Lewis' successor in the 2012 draft. Is this the year Newsome makes another big move and trades up to secure one of the talented MLB prospects in hopes to fill the Ray Lewis void?
No one knows for sure, but in this year's draft there are four solid, first-round talents. The ideal situation would be that Ray himself could groom and mentor one of these prospects for a year or two and eventually hand over the reigns to him.
Let's take a look who could be a suitable successor at MLB for the Baltimore Ravens.
Arizona State junior Vontaze Burfict stands at 6'3", weighs in at 250 pounds and is regarded as the top inside linebacker prospect in the 2012 NFL Draft (as he should be).
Burfict plays with great intensity, fire and passion; he plays with a "no fear" mentality, paired with a complete disregard for his body when shedding blocks, rushing the passer and making tackles.
Burfict shows great on-field awareness, consistently dissects plays as they are developing, hones in on the ball, and attacks it like a heat-seeking missile, much like Ray Lewis.
The problem is that the Ravens would have to give up an awful lot to bring Burfict to Baltimore, as he is sure to be a top 10 pick.
Manti Te'o from Notre Dame would be another great fit at MLB for the Baltimore Ravens.
Te'o is a 6'2", 255-pound monster with great instincts and has sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability. He is a fearless tackler and would bring a dominant presence to the middle of the field for the Ravens defense.
The bad news for the Ravens is that Te'o is also projected to be drafted in the top 15, and maybe even the top 10.
Manti Te'o would look fierce in Ravens purple, but again, Ozzie Newsome and the Baltimore Ravens would have to give up more than they might be willing to snag Te'o.
Luke Kuechly is a 6'2", 237-pound junior at Boston College.
He is a bit undersized in comparison to the other prospect linebackers mentioned, but don't let that fool you—Kuechly is the definition of "work horse," as he currently has 191 total tackles on the season (102 of them being solo).
To summarize Kuechly in one word, it would be "pursuit." This kid possesses a high motor and has a knack for finding and making plays on the ball. Sounds a lot like Ray Lewis doesn't it?
Kuechly is another prospect who could possibly be drafted in the top 15 and most likely won't slip past 20. If the Ravens want Kuechly suiting up for them come next season, they will need to trade up in the draft to do so.
Dont'a Hightower is another junior linebacker with potential to make an immediate impact for the Baltimore Ravens.
Hightower is 6'4", 260 pounds and happens to play for one of the best college football programs in the nation—the Alabama Crimson Tide. If it works out, Hightower may have the opportunity to display his skills on the big stage in competing for a BCS National Championship.
Hightower is having a great season controlling the middle of the field for the Crimson Tide defense, which is a force to be reckoned with.
The one thing that separates Hightower from the other three linebackers mentioned is that Baltimore may not have to trade up in the draft to get him. Hightower could fall to the Ravens, who will be picking late in the first round.
The other factor involved here is that Ozzie Newsome has had past success with Alabama players in the draft, and Hightower could very well be the next.
With the (hopefully 32nd pick) in the 2012 NFL Draft the Baltimore Ravens select...