Team Needs at ILB: Is there actually a need, and why?


Last offseason, when the Ravens and Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset after the franchise’s second Super Bowl victory, there were holes to fill on the roster that far outweighed any others Ozzie Newsome dealt with in his tenure.  With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed departing, the Ravens essentially ran the risk of losing themselves, as those two had embodied the effort and values that the Ravens carried onto the football field.

For casual football fans, the signing of Daryl Smith that offseason was not the answer.  A player who spent the first ten seasons of his career in the forefront of the Jaguars’ record books, unfortunately for Smith, that title didn’t exactly carry with it national notoriety.  Add to the fact that Smith was coming off of a groin injury, and many asked, if the Jaguars don’t want him, then why should we?

Of course, we know better now.  And surely the Jaguars regret their decision to let their own Ray Lewis walk out the door.  But Jacksonville’s blunder was the Ravens’ benefit, and when number 51 walked into the Under Armour Performance Center, there was a quiet confidence that couldn’t be mistaken.

For all of Ray Lewis’ bravado and boisterous behavior, the prospect of filling his shoes is an even harder one.  And so, a player like Smith is exactly what the doctor ordered.  From day one, Smith took the stance of knowing that he will never live up to Ray Lewis, so why bother trying.  The only thing that Daryl Smith tried to do was be Daryl Smith.  So, squirrel dance or not, the Ravens plugged in a linebacker that not long ago was considered elite by his teammates, and Smith hit the ground running.

After a year in purple and black, the Ravens have a much better understanding of the type of player and person that Daryl Smith is.  However, their original deal was only for one year, and so after his renaissance in Baltimore, Smith faced the prospect of relocating for the second straight season.

In the 2013 offseason, the organization didn’t simply assume that Smith would be the long-term solution to Ray Lewis’ absence, and they also looked to address the position in the draft.  For fans who followed the progress and rumors of the prospects and the team’s needs leading up to the first round, the consensus was that the Ravens would look to add one of three positions: inside linebacker, safety or wide receiver (the departure of Anquan Boldin being the main factor in this aspect).

Selecting at 32nd overall, the team was in a position where they would be able to monitor the progress of the draft board and select whichever player they deemed the best value.  Pundits had discussed the possibility of drafting safeties like LSU’s Eric Reid, Florida A&M’s Jonathan Cyprien or Florida’s Matt Elam.  They discussed the possibility of drafting inside linebackers such as LSU’s Kevin Minter, or Kansas State’s Arthur Brown.  However, when the pick came around, the Ravens settled on Elam, and many fans who felt as though inside linebacker was a more pressing need were confounded at the prospect of passing on a player of Brown’s caliber.

And then Ozzie and Eric De Costa proved once more why they are the ones pulling the strings in the Ravens’ draft room.  As the Ravens’ came on the board in the second round, Arthur Brown, the linebacker who many had pegged as a high-teens, low-twenties first round pick, was still available at 56th overall.  And suddenly, the Ravens seemingly filled the holes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in somewhat of a long-term capacity, acknowledging that there are no players who will fill their shoes entirely.

So, where inside linebacker once seemed like a weakness, the team now had depth.  Daryl Smith, Josh Bynes, Arthur Brown — all of these players were competing for the starting spot, with former starter Jameel McClain on the shelf with a mysterious back injury.  Many fans expected to see Brown lined up next to Smith at the outset of the year, however, the Ravens took the patient approach with their second round pick and only used him on nickel formations and special teams.

The way that the coaches and players talk about Arthur Brown, it seems as though this was the right decision.  In a feature from December on the Ravens’ official website, fans were given a glimpse into the work ethic of the former Kansas State Wildcat.

Brown arrives at the Under Armour Performance Center between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and puts in a 12-hour day.  He’s often the last player out of the building, and had to impose a deadline for himself to get out by 7 p.m…

“I know if I don’t, I’ll be here watching film forever,” Brown said. “I’ve always been that way, even in college…”

When some players are leaving, Brown’s evening is just beginning. He reviews that day’s practice on his iPad while getting treatment, then goes in the meeting room often by himself to watch film and view the opponent’s scheme. He goes home, eats dinner and then studies the opponent’s personnel.

“He’s always here,” Bynes said. “Next year, you’re definitely going to see a big difference [with him].”

And as it stands today, the Ravens depth chart at inside linebacker is Smith and Brown, one and two.  They resigned Daryl Smith to a four-year deal worth just over $16 million ($9.5m of which is guaranteed), and appear to be ready to hand the baton to Arthur Brown.

So, what is the problem?  Why would the Ravens go on the record saying they are still looking to add one or two linebackers on the inside?

Well, some research shows that between Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown, the Ravens are lacking in the run stopping department.  In fact, Daryl Smith’s production last year was pretty heavily divided between production in pass-defense and a relative lack from the run stopping area.  Ranking as the 16th best inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus, if you break that number down to its roots, you’ll see that Smith was the 5th best inside linebacker in coverage, but the 50th worst against the run.

This is where the problem lies.  Arthur Brown’s athletic ability lends itself much better to dominating as a pass-defender, and while that isn’t to cap his potential in the run department, the consensus on Brown coming out of college was that he profiled into more of the rangy-Navarro Bowman role, with some concerns about being undersized for the position.  And although the Ravens had a rush defense that ranked in the top ten (9th) in football last season, they appeared vulnerable at times against bruising running backs that attacked the hole (with LeVeon Bell, Toby Gerhart and LeGarrette Blount all averaging well over 4 YPC).

So, with two inside linebackers skewing towards defending the pass, it is not really a surprise that the team would be looking for more positional depth.  And one of the more interesting options at the position comes in the form of a player the team signed last offseason.

Ozzie Newsome has a soft spot for Alabama football players.  This is something that Ravens fans have come to understand.  But there may not be better proof of this than when the Ravens agreed to a one-year deal (with no money guaranteed) with former Oakland Raider and 2010’s 8th overall pick, Rolando McClain.  McClain, who at one point appeared on his way to being one of the most physical and bruising inside linebackers in the game (just take a look at this video), stepped away from football before ever reporting to the Under Armour facility, claiming that, after seeing the Aaron Hernandez debacle unfold, he realized how important mental health was in the scheme of his football life and real one.  (For anybody interested, wrote a captivating piece on McClain’s mental rehabilitation.)

And so, before we approach McClain from a football standpoint, it is vital that we accept him as a human first.  He faced countless problems in his hometown of Decatur, Al., and clashes with authority dominated the beginning of his NFL career.  But McClain, who will still be just 25 years old for the duration of the 2014 season, has spent the months since his self-imposed exile from football finishing his degree in Tuscaloosa and spending time with his two children.  In what can only be interpreted as a life decision, McClain’s time away from the sport appears to have done wonders for his psyche, and it was announced recently that he intends to make a comeback to the sport that he still loves — with the decision not solely being Rolando’s.  In an article by the Carroll County Times, McClain discussed the motivation for a return to football:

McClain’s son was watching his father get ready to go through a ladder drill when he said, “Dad, I miss watching you play football.”

McClain didn’t really respond. He finished his workout and went inside to shower. But after showering, he went down to his basement within which he has several pieces of memorabilia hanging up on the walls.

Once down there, the same son that was outside with him walked up to a framed picture of McClain during his time with the Oakland Raiders and repeated what he had said outside, “Dad, I want to watch you play football.”

“That was my sign,” McClain said during a phone interview with the Times Thursday. “From then, I just took it serious, worked out a little bit harder, and I’ve been training and preparing as if I’m going to go back…

“I’m excited about the game again,” McClain said. “I’m excited to play. I’m excited to be around some damn teammates.”

Excitement is all fine and good, but to be successful at the NFL level, especially at the inside linebacker position, a player needs to have fire.  And that is why the following quote from McClain is as reassuring as any other on the internet.

“Over the course of a month or so, you say, ‘Well, I look better. I feel better mentally. Do I really actually want to [return to football]?,’” McClain said. “And then you have that doubt. Do I want to pick up and move somewhere else? Do I want to start over and have a fourth head coach, a fourth defense, a fourth defensive coordinator in four years of me playing the game? And to make a long story short, I said, ‘[Expletive] it, I want to go back and play football.’

“I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to go back and play football,’ and I don’t want to just play football. I want to dominate the game of football.”

Add to those quotes the fact that Nick Saban apparently feels as though McClain is in the best shape that the coach has ever seen, and this seems to be one of the more interesting stories to follow this offseason.  In a defense that is looking for run stopping inside linebackers, they just had a top-ten talent fall into their lap — and seemingly a motivated top-ten talent, at that.  Hell, if McClain can fulfill his potential, the Ravens’ organization may be reevaluating Daryl Smith’s new deal sooner than they thought (and his deal was a bargain, considering inside linebackers like D’Qwell Jackson and Wesley Woodyard received equal amounts, or more, in their free agent contracts).

So, let’s look at this from an objective perspective.  If Rolando McClain for some reason doesn’t return to football, then the Ravens will be looking to add a run oriented inside linebacker in the draft or free agency.  If McClain does return, the need has lessened, so any addition at the position would be a luxury and likely come in the draft with sights set on the future.

But no matter the outcome, there is certainly talent at the position, and the growth of players like Arthur Brown and potentially Rolando McClain makes the prospects for the future all the brighter.  For now, the Ravens are lucky to have the consistent production and knowledge of Daryl Smith, and there are undoubtedly areas of need that outweigh the inside linebacker position.

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