Some would say that the Ravens are faced with a tall task to replace the stellar production of Bart Scott at the inside linebacker position.
Inside team headquarters, there hasn't been any apprehension.
From the moment Scott left to sign a lucrative contract with the New York Jets on the first day of free agency, **Tavares Gooden** was ready to step up.
The realization actually began earlier than that. Scott and **Ray Lewis’** dual free agency was looming throughout the entire 2008 campaign, leaving open the possibility of losing a combined 264 tackles from 2008.
It was also unlikely that the Ravens could sign both inside 'backers in addition to outside linebacker **Terrell Suggs**, who was also hitting the open market.
Entering his second season, Gooden spent his half of his rookie year on Injured Reserve because of a hip injury, but Baltimore's coaching staff made sure he understood what his responsibilities could eventually become.
"The coaches talked about it when the season ended, but we didn't know if it was going to be Ray or Bart leaving," the third-round draft pick said Monday. "It was hard to sit back and watch, but I knew my role and what I had to do to prepare and learn all the plays.
"I knew I had to be ready to step up this season."
The Ravens expected Gooden to contribute last year, however.
A versatile and athletic player at the University of Miami, he showed flashes of the tackling machine he was as a Hurricane during the offseason Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and training camp.
Gooden registered two tackles from scrimmage in Baltimore's third preseason contest against the Minnesota Vikings, and then went on to play in four regular-season games to total six special teams stops.
But, he was seemingly on the injury report every week as he battled his hurt left hip, and the Ravens finally placed him on IR in Week 6.
Limited to sitting in on meetings and watching from the sideline, Gooden looked to Lewis, a fellow former Hurricane, to keep him involved with the defense.
"Tavares showed tremendous signs early, and I was really excited about him getting a chance to play as a rookie," said Ravens defensive coordinator **Greg Mattison**. "The thing that was unique to see is how Ray has taken him under his wing to try and get him to do the things that made Ray so successful - the film study, the knowledge of the game, the effort to the football."
"Now, to have Tavaris in with another 'U' linebacker I'm sure has him ready to play."
The duo has a special relationship that dates back to Gooden's college days. Both players hail from the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. Both wore No. 52 in school.
And, after Gooden demonstrated NFL-caliber talent when he totaled career-high 100 tackles as a junior in 2007, they even worked out together that summer.
Gooden said that they will again perform similar workouts later in the offseason in anticipation of the coming season.
"He's like a big brother to me," Gooden explained. "He's been telling me to just shoot to the ball every play, and that's the way he plays. He wants me to play like a demon, no thinking, just shoot to the ball."
Which is the type of football Gooden expected when the Ravens selected him 71st overall.
He saw it first-hand when Baltimore's unit finished second overall in 2008, the fourth time in franchise history it earned a No. 2 ranking.
"Playing at the level the Ravens do is great for me," said Gooden. "I love the game so much, and I think my coaches are seeing that. We all love the game on this defense. Mistakes will sometimes happen on the field, but when you have 11 guys that fly around, you can make up for some of them. I think that's where I can fit in, with my speed. I haven't lost a step and am still getting around fine."
Gooden said he feels about "85-90 percent" recovered from his hip injury, and at this point, he just has to trust that he can perform the way he's accustomed to.
"I was already physically ready. I'm always in great physical condition," he said. "Now, it's working on the mental aspect of getting over the injury. I couldn't wait to get back into the locker room with our coaches, because it's really like a family around here."
Currently, Gooden is working out at the Ravens' training facility for their offseason conditioning program. He is also regularly participating in pickup three-on-three basketball games with teammates to help with his lateral movement.
In Scott's departure, Gooden knows he has big shoes to fill. On level with Lewis, Gooden has a stellar reputation to uphold.
The new Ravens' starting inside linebacker is up to the challenge.
"It's not all back, but I can see it coming back on the left side," Gooden said. "I'm just excited to join this group and be able to help this defense. When you have 11 guys just doing their responsibility, that's when the Ravens can become really dangerous.
"They've always had one of the most athletic teams in the league around here, and I want to be a part of that." **
Can Tavares Gooden make an impact in 2009? Tell us what you think!