The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens are certainly not without need in next month’s NFL Draft. The talking heads have surmised that the purple and black will try to solidify the middle on the defense. The positions of need being tackle, safety and linebacker. I am sure Ozzie Newsome and the front office will address all these needs, but I believe the most pressing is inside linebacker. With the departure of Ray Lewis, serious injury to Jameel McClain and the contract situation with Dannell Ellerbe, the Ravens at the very least will need to add depth at this position.
This year’s linebacker class is certainly highlighted by Notre Dame stand-out and temporary media darling, Manti Te’o. Due to some off field issues that don’t need mentioning and a bevy of missed tackled in the National Championship, Manti Te’o might be dropping down to the Ravens’ neighborhood. Alec Ogletree (some suspicion as to whether he will play inside or outside) is also a supreme talent who’s been in news for the wrong reasons. All the pundits have the same players in the top three of the ILB class, but the order in which they are picked is certainly up for debate. Te’o and Ogletree have been profiled above, so let’s look at Kevin Minter, the last of the top three ILBs.
Kevin Minter, LSU (late 1st round): Kevin Minter has spent a lot of his career in the shadows of Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Barkevious Mingo, but he is now one of the LSU defensive stallwarts in the spotlight. By all accounts, Minter is a top three inside linebacker in this draft alongside Te’o and Alec Ogletree. He has good size at 6’ 2" 245 pounds, which is plenty big to play the position at the next level. He was a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, which commemorates the nation’s top collegiate linebacker, and the leader of the nation’s 8th ranked defense. Minter was voted as a captain by his teammates and started all 14 games this year including the Chick-Fil-A Bowl appearance against Clemson. His season was highlighted by two unbelievable performances against Texas A&M and Florida. LSU’s defense, led by Minter, held Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to his worst offensive game of the entire year, where he did not account for a single touchdown. Minter had 12 tackles, a sack and an interception. In "The Swamp" versus Florida, Minter recorded, a ridiculous, 20 tackles, 17 of them being solos. Minter’s final season at LSU culminated in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, where he posted 19 tackles and later was named the LSU Tiger’s Most Valuable Player for the season. Kevin Minter has the accolades, talent and leadership ability to be a great asset on the Ravens for years to come.
At first glance, it seems the Cincinnati Bengals (Rey Maulaluga has hit the open market), Houston Texans (Brian Cushing is coming off a torn ACL and Bradie James will likely be elsewhere) and Denver Broncos (D. J. Williams could be a salary cap casualty) will all be in the market for help at inside linebacker. If these three standouts are taken by other teams, the Ravens will most certainly go in a different direction in the first round. More depth at this position is available later in the draft with the likes of:
Kiko Alonso, Oregon (3rd or 4th round): Kiko Alonso has the necessary size to be a NFL middle linebacker at 6’ 4" and 246 pounds. A career which saw his team go to 4 BCS games, Alonso and first round lock Dion Jordan lead a stout defense that was among the best in the Pac 12. He had two games of double digit tackles and two more with 9. Alonso also ranked second in the nation to Te’o with 4 interceptions by a LB. Alonso’s weaknesses include limited blitzing ability (1 sack), off field issues (DUI and burglary charges) and multiple serious injuries including an ACL and wrist. Alonso’s size and athletic ability certainly provide a great deal of upside for suitors. He would be attractive to the Ravens at this point in the draft to add depth to the position; however he is not someone who will be able to start in six months.
Nico Johnson, Alabama (3rd or 4th round): These days, a defensive player from Alabama just jumps off the page. Nico Johnson was a three year starter on the national best defense and one of the 2013 NFL Draft’s premier run stuffers. Johnson has an impressive 249 pound frame and was a force against a run heavy SEC. He saw action is all 13 games this year; his best being a 12 tackle output against LSU in one of the year’s hardest hitting and best games. Johnson’s draft stock has been depressed recently due to his non-influential performance in the Senior Bowl practices and game. Individual workouts will certainly do a lot for/against him as his game is built predominantly on athletic ability. Due to a sports hernia, Johnson is unable to participate in the combine, so scouts will have to wait until (a very crowded, I would assume) Pro Day in Tuscaloosa. He, like Alonso, is a player that will provide depth for the Ravens at a very affordable part of the draft.
Writers for Baltimore Beat Down have profiled some of the top linebacking options for the Baltimoreans. In my mind, the best case scenario for the Ravens would be if (a huge IF) Kevin Minter found his way to the end of the first round. Minter is the prospect in which I have the most confidence. He is also someone who will most certainly make an impact right away. Given the needs of other teams in front of the Ravens, baring a trade this is going to be an unlikely scenario. So, in terms of a prediction, by number 32, the top three will be gone forcing the Ravens to look towards the later rounds bringing Alonso and Johnson into the fray. I think Te’o will be able to quell some of the uncertainty when he is finally able to interview with teams and Ogletree is such a supreme athlete that teams will have a hard time passing him up. In this scenario, I can see the Ravens ending up with a safety or lineman with their first pick. Let’s remember, with the combine/pro days coming up and Ozzie Newsome first round wheeling and dealing ways, all bets are off, but as always – In Ozzie We Trust.