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Opinion: Ravens need at inside linebacker is vastly overstated

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Many hold the opinion that upgrading from Patrick Onwuasor at the inside linebacker position beside C.J. Mosley should be a priority for the Baltimore Ravens this offseason. Nonetheless, spending one of their most valuable draft picks or considerable salary cap space at the ‘Will’ position would be a major mistake.

No team in the NFL fields above average players at every position. The salary cap forces front offices to pick their spots, addressing some areas with proven performers while hoping to merely survive at others. This is especially true for teams such as the Ravens who have relatively limited assets.

The weak side linebacker is not a valuable position in Baltimore’s scheme. In fact, it is probably the least important of all 22 starting positions. The league wide increase in passing means the second inside linebacker is often removed from the field in passing situations for a nickel cornerback or dime safety. For example, Onwuasor played on less than 60-percent of the Ravens defensive snaps in 2017.

Onwuasor is an average player, not a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker. Still, he produced 65 solo tackles, 23 assisted tackles, four tackles for a loss, two pass deflections, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his first year as a starter. By some metrics. Onwuasor had a better season than the All-Pro Mosley. While coverage on tight ends and run defense was not up to the Ravens standard last season, subpar safety play and injuries along the defensive line were primarily at fault.

The Ravens have a long history of getting by with late round picks and undrafted free agents at inside linebacker. Ed Hartwell, Bart Scott, Josh Bynes, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan and Jameel McClain are some of the inside linebackers who had limitations, but served well in complementary roles for great Ravens defenses.

Almost all of the best NFL defenses in recent seasons, the truly elite variety that are capable of carrying flawed teams to the Super Bowl, are built around dominant cornerbacks and edge rushers. Stopping the run and limiting the short passing game only carries a team so far in the modern game.

The Ravens last championship team is a fine example. In Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore’s defense allowed 182 rushing yards at an average of 6.3 yards per carry and were gashed by the 49ers tight ends for 152 receiving yards, mostly due to the struggles of an aging, injured Ray Lewis and the journeyman Ellerbe at inside linebacker. Yet they were able to hoist the Lombardi trophy because of big plays made by their wide receivers, tight ends, safeties and cornerbacks.

Some have become enamored with the possibility of drafting Georgia’s Roquan Smith to pair with Mosley. Not only is Smith undersized, his sideline to sideline speed would be a poor fit in the Ravens two-gap scheme. He would often sidelined when passing situations call for extra defensive backs, and the Ravens have already over invested in the front seven of their defense.

Wide receiver, tight end, running back, quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback and safety are all greater needs than inside linebacker for the Ravens this offseason.