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Late for Work 4/30: How Will the Inside Linebacker Position Play Out? 

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No Linebacker, No Problem?

How will the inside linebacker position play out?

The Ravens made eight picks in the NFL Draft and didn’t select a linebacker. 

ESPN listed the biggest post-draft questions for all 32 teams, and the position remains a big talking point in Baltimore.

“After losing C.J. Mosley in free agency, Baltimore didn't add a replacement for its leading tackler with any of its eight draft picks,” ESPN wrote. “The Ravens didn't find much value with this inside linebacker class, which was thinner than other positions. Team officials appear comfortable going with Patrick Onwuasor, who finished strong, and Kenny Young, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, in the middle of their retooled defense. The Ravens have a history of finding quality undrafted inside linebackers and also could sign a veteran who's still available.”

The draft’s top linebackers, Devin White and Devin Bush, were well off the board in the first round before the Ravens had a chance to pick. It would’ve cost them additional picks, like the Steelers gave up, to move into the top-10.

“The Ravens’ biggest surprise in the draft was that they didn’t pick an inside linebacker,” The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec wrote. “… [They] could sign a veteran inside linebacker before the start of training camp, but for now, they seem content to go with the combination of Onwuasor and Young.”

However, pundits like The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker still believe the Ravens would benefit from adding a veteran.

“The Ravens have said they could go into the season with Onwuasor and Young as their starting inside linebackers, but that still doesn’t seem like the optimal answer for replacing the departed C.J. Mosley,” Walker wrote. “Onwuasor came on strong as a playmaker at weak-side linebacker, and ideally, he’d remain there. Young proved he could hang in the NFL as a rookie, but he was inconsistent as a tackler and below-average in coverage.”

Free agency has died down significantly since the first weeks of March, but after 4 p.m. on May 7, signings don’t affect the compensatory formula.

According to Russell Street Report’s Brian McFarland, the Ravens will have close to $13 million in cap space to work with once rookie contracts are finalized.

That’s enough wiggle room to go after a veteran linebacker like Zach Brown, Jamie Collins or Manti Te’o, but are the options enticing enough?

Bill Barnwell named every team’s most likely candidate to be cut or traded after the draft. Only one inside linebacker (Darron Lee) and interior offensive lineman (Brandon Fusco) made the list.

And just because there’s cap space doesn’t mean it will be spent. The Ravens could remain cap conscious and hold on to the remaining amount as in-season insurance for any signings or trades that may occur.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler is already looking ahead to the 2020 NFL Draft and has the Ravens addressing the linebacker need by taking Alabama’s Dylan Moses.

Winners and Losers of the Ravens’ Draft

Following the conclusion of the draft, the Ravens welcome eight new players and a host of undrafted rookies to the roster.

Every year there’s change as teams start to grasp a strong understanding of how the 53-man roster will form and Zrebiec highlighted 11 winners and losers from the Ravens’ draft.

Here’s a look at three from each side.

Winners

Lamar Jackson: “To his credit, the second-year quarterback declined to campaign for any pieces in the draft, saying he trusts the judgment of the decision-makers and that he was focused on the guys currently in the building. He had to be pleased, though, to see the Ravens add a speedy, game-breaking outside threat like [Marquise] Brown, a fast and physical target in [Miles] Boykin and a big-play running back in Justice Hill. Jackson now has a few more weapons to push the pace.”

Matt Skura: “The Ravens didn’t take a first-round center, as some people expected. In fact, they didn’t draft a center with any of their picks, nor did they bid on any centers in free agency. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Skura, a 16-game starter last year, will have competition for his starting job, presumably from Bradley Bozeman. However, the lack of activity at that position sure seems to be a vote of confidence for Skura.”

Greg Roman: “Other Ravens officials in the draft war room late Thursday playfully accused the offensive coordinator of “beaming” after the team selected Brown in the first round. By the end of the draft, the Ravens had also added another early-round receiver, a potential starting guard (Ben Powers, fourth round), a complementary running back and another quarterback (Trace McSorley, sixth round) with a versatile skill set. It’s Roman’s job to find ways to best deploy the new pieces, but that challenge certainly beats the alternative, which is having to do more with less.”

Losers

Kenneth Dixon: “When healthy and in shape, Dixon has added juice to the offense and been a factor. He just hasn’t been on the field enough. It’s certainly possible that the Ravens keep four running backs, and De’Lance Turner could enter the mix, too, but Dixon won’t have much margin of error. This is a make-or-break summer for him. He’s also going to have to stand out on special teams.”

Reserve cornerbacks: “The selection of USC’s Iman Marshall in the fourth round makes the cornerback room even more crowded and the status of some of the team’s holdovers at the position even more tenuous … Anthony Averett, free-agent acquisition and special-teams standout Justin Bethel, punt returner Cyrus Jones, Maurice Canady, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Robertson Daniel and now Marshall. Jones, Canady, Jean-Baptiste and Daniel all need really strong preseasons to stick.”

Returning young receivers: “About three weeks ago, the Ravens signed veteran slot receiver Seth Roberts. Over the weekend, they drafted receivers with two of their first three picks, and they are poised to add four undrafted pass catchers as well. [Quincy] Adeboyejo played in one game in 2017, and [Jaleel] Scott and [Jordan] Lasley, fourth- and fifth-round picks last year, have yet to see any action. All three will need to consistently make plays this summer.”

Top Undrafted Rookie Lands in Baltimore

The Ravens are one of the most successful teams when it comes to finding undrafted talent.

At least one undrafted rookie has made the 53-man roster in Baltimore for 15 straight seasons and another talented pool of players are expected to come in and compete.

Miami defensive tackle Gerald Willis will reportedly join the Ravens and he ranks among Pro Football Focus’ top undrafted signings. 

“An older prospect entering the draft at 23, Willis still plays with high pad level and can get bodied in the run game as a result,” PFF’s Austin Gayle wrote. “When he does win, however, he wins with enthusiasm early enough in the snap to make splash plays in the backfield.

“Willis earned an 88.3 run-defense grade in 2018, ranking tied for 12th in the 2019 draft class. His 85.9 overall grade this past season ranked 13th among qualifiers at his position, as well.”

Willis totaled four sacks and 18 tackles for loss during his senior season with the Hurricanes. He was projected as a mid-round pick, but off-field concerns dropped his stock.

Willis joins a talented defensive line group, led by Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce, a former undrafted rookie. Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Zach Sieler, and fifth-round pick Daylon Mack will also compete for playing time.

“If the Ravens can get the most out of Willis, he could be a steal,” Ebony Bird’s Richard Bradshaw wrote. “Considering the team’s defensive line group is devoid of a true pass rusher, Willis could put an emphasis on improving that area of his game and get himself extra reps this preseason.”

Ravens Move Up in Post-Draft Power Rankings

It may take years to fully evaluate Eric DeCosta’s first draft class, but he’s already earning strong reviews from pundits.

NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison released his post-draft power rankings and has the Ravens jumping up two spots to No. 13.

“Those boys in Baltimore knocked the draft out of the park,” Harrison wrote. “The first few picks in the GM's first swing at this deal should make waves immediately in the AFC North. First-round receiver Marquise Brown's speed will be untenable for defenses who must hesitate against the league's heaviest RPO offense. Miles Boykin out of Notre Dame injects even more speed into an offense that now has it in spades -- and at 6-foot-4, he couldn't be any more opposite than the 5-9 Brown in terms of catch radius. OK, let's go to the Ravens' earlier third-round pick, Jaylon Ferguson. Baltimore simply had to secure pass-rushing help in this draft with the departures of Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs in free agency. Ferguson could have gone in the first round.”

For the rest of the AFC North, the Browns led the way at 10, the Steelers stayed at 18, and the Bengals dropped to 30.

The Ravens filled distinct needs at wide receiver, spending two of their first three picks on the position with Brown and Boykin.

It’s the first time the Ravens have used two top-100 selections on wide receivers in franchise history, and while questions remain, Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuinness likes the direction they’re heading.

“The Ravens offense is going to be one of the most interesting units to watch in 2019,” McGuinness wrote. “They are still set up as a team who have big question marks in the passing game, and Lamar Jackson’s development along with how they scheme around that will be key to their success. With the 2019 NFL Draft though, they showed that they are willing to use premium draft picks to find playmakers, increasing their chances of finding success at the position.”

For the bettors out there, the Ravens sit with 40-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. They’re 3-1 odds to repeat as division champs.

The Browns are still the consensus favorites to win the division (+140), according to ESPN. Pundits remain convinced they’re the real deal.

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