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2012 Ravens' Defense: Who's Ready To Step Up?

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With free agency rapidly approaching, the Baltimore Ravens will soon begin working on their roster by adding, subtracting, and promoting players all while juggling the salary cap. The Ravens have always been fantastic at stocking talent throughout their roster by usually drafting the "best players available", as opposed to drafting for need. Over the years, this philosophy has led the Ravens to acquire phenomenal depth a certain positions throughout their roster.

The other upside to drafting based on who the "best player available" is, is that it allows the Ravens to develop young talent while playing underneath some of the veteran starters without forcing a young player into a role they might not be ready for.

There are several defensive players that are set to become free agents this year including: Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding, Jameel McClain, Tom Zbikowski, and Haruki Nakamura, just to name a few. While some veteran players may be retained, others will surely move on to other franchises during free agency prompting the Ravens to either draft replacements or promote players from within.

Though several veteran Ravens may depart this off-season, Ravens fans shouldn’t be worried in the least. There are several promising young defensive players that could be ready to become full-time starters and contribute to one of the league’s best defenses.

(After the "Jump", see who could become full-time starters in place of possibly departing Ravens veterans.)

With the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, faces change each year, players come and go, but one thing remains: dominance. The Ravens have always been known as a defensive force to be reckoned with, in large part due to the unheralded players that surround the likes of mega-stars, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

Several promising defensive stars could be laying in wait for their chance to prove themselves. So, who could become a new full-time starter next season after some current Ravens will inevitably leave in free agency?

Outside Linebacker: 9 year veteran, Jarret Johnson, will become an unrestricted free agent in a few weeks time, and it’s been widely debated as to whether or not the Ravens will be able to contend with the potential offers of big money that Johnson will see on the open-market. Often times, Ravens defenders are highly coveted during free agency because they are known for being well-coached, smart, complete football players and Johnson is no different. Although he is not an extremely adept pass rusher, Johnson is extremely proficient at stopping the run, and generally "setting the edge" and doing the dirty work of the defense. While he is a tremendous asset to the Ravens’ defense, his potential high price could lead to his exit with the team.

Potential replacements for Johnson: Sergio Kindle, Paul Kruger, Mike McAdoo

Sergio Kindle: Kindle has yet to show his skills in the NFL due to the skull fracture he sustained weeks before the Ravens’ 2010 training camp. After being out of football for so long, many have questioned Kindle’s ability to jump back into the game and become the dominant pass-rusher that many thought he could be coming out of the University of Texas. This will be an important off-season for Kindle to prove his worth, and health, to the coaches or he could find himself getting buried on the depth chart or perhaps even off of the Ravens’ roster next year altogether.

Paul Kruger: It’s been a slow start for Kruger at the NFL level, but he did have his best campaign this season. Not officially starting in any game this year, with limited playing time he compiled only 15 tackles, but did tally 5.5 sacks. In his slim playing time, Kruger was able to show off some of his pass-rushing skills and could cement himself as a full-time starter with another good off-season and additional time to hone his skills. Where Kruger may be heating up in the pass-rush department, he is not as good a run stuffer as Johnson and will need to bone up on that part of his game if he wishes to see more on-field action. Listed at 6-4 265 lbs, the 26 year old will need to work on some technique and perfect the small things in his game in order to earn the starting role.

Mike McAdoo: The former North Carolina linebacker/defensive end was added to the Ravens’ roster as an un-drafted free agent in 2011. Seemingly added as a "project" player after a short two-year collegiate career, it’s unclear how McAdoo will translate his play to the NFL. McAdoo is a raw talent after perhaps never realizing his full potential in college, but at a staggering 6-7 245 lbs, he could very well posses the physical tools to become a very good pass-rush specialist. McAdoo also adds great versatility to his repertoire because he can line up as both a line backer standing up and a defensive end with his hand in the dirt, much like Terrell Suggs. With additional time to grow and work his way into the NFL, McAdoo could become another Ravens’ steal.

If Jarret Johnson leaves the Ravens in free agency, my vote for his replacement would be: Paul Kruger. Kruger right now possesses the most versatility and pass rush prowess out of this crop of young outside linebackers. Kruger also has the most experience and on-field time out of the bunch, and with some minor tweaks in his game, Kruger, while not the run stuffer Johnson is, could prove to be a great sack artist and boost an already fierce Ravens pass-rush.

Defensive End: Cory Redding is also set to become an unrestricted free agent, and while he will most likely be cheaper to extend than Johnson, with a limited amount of cap space and potential glaring needs for the overall team such as: offensive line, wide receiver, and maybe even running back, the Ravens may be forced to part ways with the 9 year NFL veteran. In two years with the Ravens, the 31 year old Redding has totaled 7.5 sacks and 60 tackles. With somewhat pedestrian numbers, Redding could be forced out if the Ravens look to utilize some younger, cheaper, and maybe even more skilled pass-rushing talent currently on the roster.

Potential replacements for Redding: Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones

Arthur Jones: Jones may be better suited as a defensive tackle, at 6-3 313 lbs, the soon to be 3rd year NFL player has yet to show a lot of what he has to offer as a Raven. Known as a very hard worker, the young defensive lineman will hopefully look to train as hard as he can this off-season to become a part of the Ravens’ pass-rushing plan. Depending on where the Ravens would like to place Jones along the defensive line, it could serve Jones well to shed some weight as he is a bit between a defensive tackle’s and defensive end’s stature.

Pernell McPhee: The 2011 5th round draft pick has burst onto the NFL scene as a young stand-out pass rush specialist. I doubt very much that anyone out-side the Ravens’ organization would have guess that McPhee would post 23 tackles and 6 sacks. Seemingly every time McPhee saw the field he made his presence felt by bowling over offensive linemen and harassing quarterbacks. McPhee plays with a very high motor and has the speed and strength to over-power his opponent and get into the back field. McPhee is maybe the young Ravens player that I’m most looking forward to see more of. With a full off-season and the time to develop in training camps, it is conceivable that McPhee could double his sack totals from this year next season.

If Cory Redding leaves the Ravens in free agency, my vote for his replacement would be: Pernell McPhee. Although McPhee may not be as stout against the run as Redding is, with time to develop he could be just as good and will certainly provide an upgrade in the pass-rush and sack total categories. Something to think about: McPhee totaled 6 sacks in one season with very limited playing time as a rookie with no off-season training, whereas Redding has totaled 7.5 sacks in two seasons as a full-time starter and 9 year veteran. If McPhee continues the trend he started in the 2011-2012 season, he could become an absolute monster.

Defensive Backs: Although there aren’t several free-agent-to be cornerbacks, it is almost inevitable that the Ravens will release Domonique Foxworth, and perhaps even Chris Carr in a move to create additional salary cap room. With a young core of: Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Cary Williams, what once was a defensive weak point, has become a major strength. Not only does the aforementioned core of players make up a strong unit, there are also a couple of additional strong prospects in both Danny Gorrer and Chykie Brown. With such phenomenal depth and room for each player to realize their full potential, the Ravens’ pass defense should be among the NFL’s best units next year.

Even though a few Ravens’ veterans might be moving on this off-season, this defense has a bright, bright future ahead. Loaded with young talent, we’re very fortunate that the Ravens have been able to build great depth throughout the years for times like these when this roster could be faced with some major turn over.

Which players do you think are ready to step-up and become full-time starters? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments section below!