Like any Super Bowl Champion, the Baltimore Ravens need to evolve and retool. Since wildcard weekend, their players have been under the microscope by the national media, especially the two weeks leading to the Super Bowl, when there are only 106 players that matter in the entire league. All signs point to the fact that the team will look very different when "Where The Streets Have No Names" plays on September 5th. The Ravens have always been able to build through the draft and 2013 marks another year where this will be very important. For the first time in a decade, the Ravens are looking to solidify their defense before the offense and as we learned from Ray Lewis, this all starts in the middle.
Before we get to the answers, let’s assess what the Ravens had last year at middle linebacker:
Ray Lewis (retired)
He can be found either in Bristol, CT or on the University of Miami sideline next year watching his son. Over the hill and slow has been the knock on Ray, but the Ravens lost only one game with him on the field and they were one ridiculous Jacoby Jones offensive pass interference penalty away from being undefeated. His leadership will be sorely missed and others have giant shoes to fill.
Dannell Ellerbe (UFA)
I think we are all keeping our fingers crossed that he will be donning number 59 in purple next year. Leading all linebackers with 66 tackles in just 7 starts, Ellerbe transformed himself from a player with a permanent room in the John Harbaugh Dog House into someone who learned how to be an NFL football player from Ray Lewis. Ray taught him how to play on the field and prepare off the field. This became very evident down the stretch starting with the New York Giants game. He set the tone when he guessed the snap count and exploded through the line on 3rd and long on the first drive. The play was nullified by a phantom offside call, but the message was sent – Ellerbe is a very important part of this defense. Assuming we are able to keep him, Ellerbe is someone who can join Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb as the core of this defense.
He has been Ray Lewis’ right hand man for a few years now and the opening day starter with Lewis in 2012. A very serviceable man in the middle with 56 tackles in 13 starts, but it is unclear if he can pick up some of the void left by Lewis. The major concern now for McClain is a neck injury that sidelined him for the end of regular season and playoffs. This is a very scary injury and one that can affect the rest of his career.
Josh Bynes (UFA), Albert McClellan, Brendon Ayanbadejo
These guys are generally seen on special teams, but did get some action at ILB in the past. Josh Bynes was the hero of the safety punt in the Super Bowl, but saw limited time on defense. Albert McClellan’s most notable contribution was probably the Harbowl on Thanksgiving 2011, when he filled in quite admirably for Ray Lewis. Brendon Ayanbadejo is the leader of the special teams and I think the Ravens would like to keep him in this role. I don’t think the front office has identified any of these guys as a starter in the future.
If the Ravens are able to resign Ellerbe and McClain is able to play at full strength, I think the Ravens have two solid starters. In addition, having a health Haloti Ngata will help to eat up blocks and allow them to roam. The Ravens will also look for reinforcements at this position as Terrence Cody has not lived up to expectations. Any improvements at tackle will make life easier for our core of inside linebackers. With that being said, the Ravens are going to look for depth at this position in the offseason. What route they go has a lot to do with the needs at safety (Ed Reed?) and offensive line (Matt Birk’s retirement), as they could be more pressing. Some affordable and attractive free agents might include, Michael Boley, Bradie James and maybe even Bart Scott. Victor Butler is also a possibility, who is only 25 and has not gotten much of a chance with Dallas. If Ed Reed returns to the team, thus solidifying free safety for at least one more season, I think the Ravens will go with an inside linebacker in one of the first few round of the draft. Tomorrow, I will profile a few options for the Ravens including, Kevin Minter, Kiko Alonso and Nico Johnson.
Thank you for reading! My name is Mike Hall and I am a new writer for Baltimore Beat Down. I am a Baltimore native, graduate of St. Paul's and the University of Delaware. Since then, I have been spreading the purple and black in our nation’s capital. Over the coming weeks I will be analyzing some of the Ravens off season needs. Follow me on Twitter (@Mike_Hall3) or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Go Ravens!