Ugh. Just thinking of this makes my gut churn.
But what is the team gonna do going forward? There's various options and this post looks at what is in front of the team. Let's start with...
What we have right now: the ILB's on the current roster
1. Dannel Ellerbe. I don't know what happened and when but as we all can see The Light Came On for Ellerbe this year. He's now a certified 3-down ILB, able to cover, pass rush, and play the run-and there just aren't many of those around. In this post-Ray era, we simply have to keep this guy and he's a free agent this year. Just speaking for myself of course but I do not want to see Ellerbe testing the free agent waters. I want to sign him up before then and if we have to cut a vet or two with a high cap charge then so be it. Ellerbe is simply our cornerstone at ILB and the defense for the next few years or until we draft a gifted ILB. Hats of to Dean Pees for coaxing this fortunate turn of events.
2. Jameel McClain. The contrast between McClain and Ellerbe is so interesting. It was McClain who got a contract last year after all other teams passed on him. That has led me to say that we should probably cut Jameel because of the cap charge he incurs, but I realize that I am probably too extreme in that feeling and so I am retracting it. McClain is definitely a serviceable 2-down ILB. He can't cover that well and his rushing skills aren't the best so he's a liability on passing downs but he is decent against the run. Basically this year we have seen the ceiling of McClain's abilities. Ideally he would be a rotation player and he'd be a damn fine one at that. But as long as he's a starter for the Ravens, it shows a weakness in our defense. We could use an upgrade.
Jameel's contract runs through 2014. His cap charge next year is a hefty $4.3M and will stay around there the year after. Yes, he is overpriced.
3. Brendon Ayanbadejo. Special team captain and backup ILB with some pass coverage skillz, he carries a moderate cap hit of just over $1M until 2015 when he is a free agent and when I expect him to retire. Good rotational player.
4. Josh Bynes. A practice squad player forced into action because of al the injuries has not been totally overwhelmed by his sudden responsibilities so he has some potential. Obviously he's very cheap against the cap. This offseason he's an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he'll get a small raise and a chance to keep developing. He's a ways to go before we can say that he's a real asset to the team-a couple of years yet. But it is nice to have such a player in our depth chart.
Two more players who sometimes play ILB:
5. Albert McClellan. Also an exclusive rights free agent. I am not sure what the Ravens think of McClellan other than they are using him both inside and outside. He's had some very good games this year coupled with some very nondescript ones. I hope the team is figuring out how best to use him but basically like Bynes, you have to think of Albert as a developmental and rotational player for next year.
6. Cortney Upshaw. Yeah he's thought of as an OLB but if Pees has McClellan moving to different positions, he's doing the same with Upshaw. OLB, ILB, nose tackle on some passing downs, Pees is definitely looking at all the possibilities for Upshaw. We don't know if this wil continue next year; it might depend on if the team loses Kruger and/or Ellerbe. But it is possible that Upshaw's future could be a run-stuffing IILB. I give that a 30% chance but the takeaway is that Upshaw is being looked at for the interior of the defense.
To sum up...
Ray Lewis' retirement leaves the Ravens' IL:B unit in a state of flux with an emphasis on youth. Ellerbe has blossomed into a keeper at the exact right time. He could become a pro bowl level player. The rest of the unit however consists of at present role players with a weakness towards defending the pass either by man on man with running backs or tight ends or especially in zone coverage. The team needs to take the info they have now and decide this offseason how they are to prop up the pass defending abilities of their ILB unit. Can Bynes and/or McClellan step up into that role? My guess is that the team has already decided that McClellan can't, though he can play a useful role on the team. So maybe Bynes? I really don't know but he's got a way to get there still and I can't imagine anything but him still being a work in progress next year.
Lastly the team needs to define a role for Upshaw eventually. He's a jack of all trades at the line of scrimmage but his pass rushing skills are poor. Even with that it is exciting to think of his development.
So wwith that assessment we ned to think of outside help, which can come in two ways:
Yeah, this ain't gonna happen. If there's one thing all of us fans need to remember when we head into free agency is its is this: THE RAVENS ARE TIGHT AGAINST THE CAP AND WILL BE FOR THE NEXT COUPLE OF YEARS TOO. We could be worse. We coule be the Steelers who are looking at cap hell for the forseeable future. But then if you look at our other divisional rivals, the Bengals and Clowns, both of them are in highly envious positions.
At any rate we will be sorely pressed to keep Ellerbe and Kruger. Ray Lewis' retirement does take off $4.3M from the cap next year though and any relief for the team is huge at this point. As Filmstudy has estimated, Ray's retirement frees up $4.35M in cap space, which includes the dead money charge. Excellent. Hel-lo Dannel Ellerbe! BNut are there other free agents on other teams we might want to attract? Not really-the market is fairly sparse for ILB FA's. Ray Maualuga of Cincy is probably the best and he's not much of an upgrade on McClain. If we do manage to snare a free agent from another team, it willl most likely not be a ILB type. That leaves....
The Draft. Yummy.
By my estimate, the pool of 3 down ILB's is remarkably deep this year. Very unusual. You can identify 4 in fact that could go in round 1 and I'll talk about them individually in a second. After round 2 there are a couple who also stand out. Let's get to them.
1. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame You've heard of him no doubt. And you've also heard that he's gonna be long gone by the time the Ravens pick in round one. If so-you are right! Pat yourself on the back. Now if you think we should try to trade up for him- you are wrong! No star for you! The thing is there are a couple other ILB's who are basically as good as Te'o.
2. Alec Ogletree, Georgia He led the Bulldogs in tackles even though he missed the first four games of the year and even on a team with at least a half dozen serious NFL prospects. A former safety, he can cover, he can rush and he can play the run. Interestingly he is viewed as a project cause he's nto the best tackler (even though he led his team...) and he's only played ILB for 2 years. The guy has pie in the sky upside. Russ Lande even has him rated above Te'o.
Any problems? My guess is that by the time of the draft after he causes Mayock to freak out over his combine scores and his individual workout, he will also be taken before we pick. No fear though...
3. Kevin Minter, LSU. This guy is the unsexy pick of the top ILB's, in part because he's overshadowed by his sexier but less productive ends, Mingo and Montgomery. He is not the athlete that Ogletree is but he's solid, including well thought of against the pass. He should be available when we pick and several mocks have us doing just that.
4. Arthur Brown, Kansas St. Have you asked yourself lately why Ray Lewis was picked so low in the draft in 96? (He was picked 24th-and Ozzie wanted Kevin Hardy more. Hardy was picked before Lewis, along with two other ILB's.) Pretty simple: Ray was thought of as too small at 6'1" and not that heavy either. Ray is reason #1 why we shouldn't get too worked up about size and weight.
Well guess what? Here's an ILB who is also 6'1" and only 231 pounds who is also getting tagged with the "too small" label and thus normally marked out of the first round of the draft. And you know what Brown also shares with Lewis? Blinding speed. Ass kicking speed. Meth speed. Here is the one guy of this group that can run sideline to sideline and tackle any running back, like Ray did in his prime. He shares a couple other traits with Ray also: he's a polished tackler. The best tackler in the bunch. Finally he is the unquestioned captain on their defense. Doesn't this sound like Ray? I am not saying he's a future hall of famer but he's got the qualities that we want. Yes, he can defend the pass.
This is the guy who's at the top of my draft board at the moment. As I said above, mockers don't love him. Several have him listed as an OLB because, well you can't be that small and play ILB-right Ray? Ahem. And since everyone already knows about his speed, the combine won't boost him like it will Ogletree. It's o course a long wait till the draft but this is a guy who we may be able to trade down for and still get-or trade up from our 2nd round pick. (I presume he'll be gone when we pick in round 2.)
One final word on Brown, If you read this today (Thursday) you get a chance to see him tonight vs Oregon. Pay attention to him as Oregon as you know is built for speed-and if Oregon's coach goes to the Browns that will put an awful strain on our LB's to handle the offense that Chip Kelly will throw at us.
Those are the Big Four, all of whom I would love to take. But there are a couple of others lower in the draft that could help the Ravens ILB corps...
5. Shane Skov, Stanford. Every year there's a couple of prospects that slide down the draft board because of college injuries. Gronkowski is an example. Skov-y here is another as he was injured for most of last year and has slowly worked himself back into shape during this college year. ZI see Skov a lot sicn he's in the same conference as my Oregon Ducks. Skov is a freakin' beast, absolutely death against the run while being able to cover the short zone. I think he would be mentioned with the Big Four if he hadn't been hurt. If we want shear cringe-inducing power, the kind that breaks the shoulders of the likes of Rashard Mendenhall, Shane Skov is our boy. He would be great value in rounds 2 or 3.
6. Kiko Alonzo, Oregon Plays a little wild at times (i.e. goes for the big hit too much) but other than that can defend the pass, rush, and play the run. Just your basic very good ILB, solid in all aspects, without the jaw-dropping characteristics of a Ogletree or Brown. Still a tad raw but he has an upside that's a level above McClain's so he's worth looking at in rounds 4-5 if we haven't picked an ILB yet.
There are a couple other LB's who I am as excited about with-Nico Johnson or Alabama, Jon Bostic or Florida come to mind. I don't see the value in them as opposed to the above six.
To sum up...
With Ray leaving the Ravens' ILB status is in a fluid but slightly talent-poor position. They need to upgrade here though there is some hope that a youngster might make the grade like Ellerbe is doing now. The draft is the place to look for said talent and fortunately there are several choices that the team could pick from in various rounds. My hope is that they go ILB in round 1 because those ILB's I have listed above are stars in the making.
It is hard to replace a starrt of Ray Lewis' magnitude. The team has not shown an ability to do that with Jonathan Ogden so there should be some concern that the team will spend several years with very replaceable players that don't develop. There are several stars in this draft at ILB. Make the call Ozzie!