The inside linebacker position has gone through a significant transition this offseason.
Ray Lewis retired. Dannell Ellerbe signed with the Miami Dolphins. The team cut veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo.
With nearly the entire unit gone, the key returner is veteran Jameel McClain, who is working his way back from a spinal cord contusion that put him on injured reserve last season.
"We definitely want Jameel out there," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said. "It's very critical from the standpoint of he's our leadership out there."
The injury ended McClain's 2012 season after 13 games, and put him on a long path to recovery. He has been a limited participant during the practices of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) open to the media. The Ravens are encouraged with McClain's progress, and the expectation is for him to return to full strength by training camp.
When McClain is full-go, the Ravens plan on plugging him into the starting role he's held for the last three years.
"When he comes back, he will be a starter," Pees said. "It will be his job to lose and we'll go from there."
The likely starter to put alongside McClain is second-round pick Arthur Brown, who is also sidelined right now because of a sports hernia procedure. Other players expected to be in the mix at inside linebacker are Josh Bynes, Bryan Hall and Albert McClellan.
McClain, a six-year veteran, is a respected voice in the locker room, and getting him back on the field is critical for a defense that has to replace leaders like Lewis, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. Along with Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Elvis Dumervil and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens are counting on McClain to help fill the leadership void.
Also, he has experience calling in the plays and running the defense from when Lewis dealt with injuries in recent seasons.
All those attributes make McClain's recovery critical for a defense that is working to replace seven starters from last year's Super Bowl team.
"He's been in there and run the show when Ray was out for 10 games last year, and four games, the year before," Pees said. "He's kind of the only veteran inside guy that we really have in there. So, we really want to get him back."