A position of strength last year, the team will need players to step up at the position in order to keep star pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil fresh. With Pernell McPhee leaving for a big deal with the Chicago Bears, who will fill the void for the Ravens?
Courtney Upshaw is a stud run stopper, ranking top 3 in that category as a rookie in 2012. The 2012 season represented the most snaps he has taken as a Raven, with Suggs missing more than half the season to injury and Paul Kruger mostly one dimensional. Upshaw's contributions were vital to winning that Super Bowl, especially with Kruger sitting out most of the game since San Francisco was a running team with the additional threat of a mobile quarterback. However, following 2012, the team signed Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, and have split the snaps pretty evenly since.
Unproven as a pass rusher at the college or professional level, Upshaw will have to show he has the abilities to contribute as a pass rusher too if he wants to pick up the extra snaps vacated by McPhee. One thing he does have going for him is his versatility and ability to play on the defensive line as a tackle or end in passing situations. He also delivered the biggest hit of the season on Ben Roethlisberger, one of the hardest QB's in the league to bring down
The favorite to be utilized in McPhee's role, Smith is a near lock to make the roster barring injuries. It has been many many years since the Ravens organization let a 4th rounder go before their rookie season. An impact player in his 2 years at the University of Kentucky, Smith tallied 66 tackles and 11 sacks. He was more productive as a pass rusher than 1st round draft pick and teammate Alvin 'Bud' Dupree, now a rival Steeler.
Here is what ESPN insider had to say about him before the draft:
A power rusher. Has an adequate first-step quickness but lacks elite speed and bend as an edge rusher. Not a great athlete and lacks good redirect skills, but has some suddenness for size. Shows ability to convert speed to power but leaves room for improvement in this area. Shows ability to gain initial leverage by isolating half of the blockers body (Half-man). Still has room to hone his pass-rush moves though. Displays good upside in this area because he possesses very quick hands and natural disengage skills. Flashes good awareness to get hands up and disrupt passing windows.
Has incredible motor. Leaves it all on the field. Makes plays in backside pursuit and chases down screen/quick-hitters from across the field. Above-average toughness
Not a perfect product, but what do you expect from a 4th rounder. He should be able to contribute for us.
Means is by no means a certainty to make the final roster, so his battle will not only be for a spot in the rotation, but also for a roster spot. However, the front office and coaching staff have singled him out in the past as someone they are excited about. Means played 4 seasons at the University of Buffalo, producing 185 career tackles, 29.5 for a loss, 18.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and five blocked kicks in college. For more about him, see my article earlier this month about him.
We have 3 good options in camp, so they should all have time to distinguish themselves. I like Means to steal the snaps from Smith and Upshaw, and make the team as a rotational pass rusher and special teamer.