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Offseason positional preview: Linebacker

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one position the Baltimore Ravens are synonymous with, it would be linebacker. Ray Lewis, Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott and many more will come to mind when you think of the type of player the purple and black are known for developing.

In 2018, they fielded a really nice mix of established veterans, promising rookies, and of course a holdover of a the bygone era of dominant early 2000’s Ravens defenses. The linebackers were a major factor in Baltimore being ranked 2018’s number one defense. However, there are a good amount of questions surrounding the linebacking unit heading into 2019.

Will we see the same familiar faces we’ve gotten used to over the years or will the front office opt to go in different directions under new leadership? Let’s take a look at how it may shake out below with our 2019 linebacker positional preview:

Current depth chart:

• RUSH: Terrell Suggs (UFA), Za’Darius Smith (UFA), Tim Williams (2019 cap hit = $904,170)

• MLB: C.J. Mosley (UFA), Chris Board (2019 cap hit = $570,000)

• WLB: Patrick Onwausor (RFA), Kenny Young (2019 cap hit = $729,976)

• SLB: Matt Judon (2019 cap hit = $783,984), Tyus Bowser (2019 cap hit = $1,520,621)

Offseason outlook:

A few of the names immediately jump off the page thanks to the “UFA” right next to them. Namely, C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Za’Darius Smith who’s fresh off of a productive season.

Conventional wisdom would likely project Suggs to retire at the ripe age of 36, though he’s already confirmed he has other plans:

“I would love to be a Raven for life.” Suggs said following the playoff loss to L.A. “I’m healthy. I feel like I’ve still got some juice in the tank. It’s up to them. We’ll have to see what happens. It’s a long time between here and March. Hopefully we can work it out, but if not, I’m going to be lining up for somebody next year.”

So that answers that: T-Sizzle will play next season and while he hopes to return to Baltimore, he says the ball is in their court as far as bringing him back. Ultimately, the talk of lining up elsewhere is likely just contract posturing, which makes sense.

It’s pretty likely the Ravens will seek to bring him back as he’s a franchise icon, and still a nice player for his advanced age. He grades out is a 70.0 on Pro Football Focus which is above average, but he also brings veteran leadership and a hard nosed attitude that can’t be replicated.

His 2018 cap hit of almost $7 million is a bit steep for a player with that profile, but it’d be surprising if he and the front office don’t ultimately meet in the middle. Suggs clearly loves being here and the feeling is mutual; for that reason I believe they’ll ultimately figure something out between now and March.

The next rush linebacker behind him is UFA Za’Darius Smith, hitting the market following an 8.5 sack season. Smith is a definitely a solid player but he fits the all too familiar “productive Ravens linebacker in a contract year who inevitably cashes in elsewhere” profile to a T.

Baltimore may actually bring him back due to having some real cash in their hands for the first time in years, but considering the history it’s fair to wonder if he could be just another Paul Kruger or Pernell McPhee.

C.J. Mosley’s contract status has been at the forefront of the fan bases’ thinking for a very long time now, and it’s still somewhat unclear what they should do with the guy who’s been the heart and soul of the D for the past several years. As much as he’s been a blue chipper, there’s concern about his role on a modern NFL defense as a bigger, run stuffing linebacker.

For example, PFF doesn’t love him, grading him at 70.1, good for 29th overall in the entire league. While that does sound pretty damning, his 105 total tackles led the top defense in the league and the #3 overall rush defense by Football Outsiders’ numbers.

His struggles in coverage are well documented, even after he picked off Baker Mayfield to win the division for the Ravens. It’s a real quandary that’s even further complicated by the fact that he brings veteran leadership and an “it” factor similar to Suggs, something that can’t really be quantified.

At the end of the day, don’t be surprised to see Eric DeCosta bring Mosley back on a front loaded contract. With a more flexible cap situation thanks to a cost controlled quarterback, Baltimore will likely do what they’re known for and reward their homegrown guys.

Mosley may not be worth Bobby Wagner/Luke Kuechly money, but a contract set up to have a higher cap hit at the beginning may end up being worth it for a what is a very productive high character player. While some may be disappointed in this move, it’s actually a pretty good one if the money isn’t totally outrageous.

Next to Mosley is another free agent, this time the restricted Patrick Onwausor. Peanut had a quiet start to the year, but really turned things on down the stretch, making a few crucial plays that actually made the difference in some games; he’s worth a tender, though there are certainly other options such as Kenny Young or Chris Board who could take over for him if needed.

Finally, the outlook at SLB is pretty positive for 2019. Matt Judon had a productive 2018 with seven sacks, and former second rounder Tyus Bowser is in the mix as well.

They’ll definitely want to see more out of Bowser as well as Tim Williams (who was a third rounder in his own right) but they absolutely have the promise to eventually contribute. Depending on some of the aforementioned contract situations, they may get their shot in 2019.

Let us know what your thoughts are on the linebacking corps heading into the offseason.