Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis has established a reputation during his 13 years in the NFL as a feared defensive force and one of the greatest inside middle linebackers of all time. Despite turning 34 years old this past May, The Sporting News still ranks Lewis in the top five at the position in the game right now.
In a list of the 20 top inside linebackers playing today, Lewis came in fourth behind the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher, 31, the San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis, 24 and the Arizona Cardinals' Karlos Dansby, 27. The criteria focused on the increasing demand for middle linebackers to drop back into coverage and how well they read offensive plays.
The article called inside linebackers "the smartest and most instinctive players on the defensive side of the ball." Anyone familiar with Lewis' style of play will agree that description fits him. Sporting News elaborated:
As long as he is protected by big guys like Kelly Gregg, Justin Bannan and Haloti Ngata, Lewis can do what he does best – attack the ball carrier. Lewis is a good tackler and run defender, and in '08 he proved he is surprisingly effective in coverage.
Baltimore fans may scoff at the lower ranking, but Lewis has reached an age where most linebackers begin to decline. Lewis has remained consistent entering his 14th season and is viewed as a first-ballot hall of famer. He may not be the dominant player he was in his prime, but he is still viewed as the leader of the defense both on and off the field. His strong work ethic was particularly evident when he attended voluntary OTAs this offseason, and has taken many younger players under his wing over the years.
Lewis remains one of the most inspirational and vocal leaders in the NFL. Many other players, such as Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, have pointed to his passion and guidance as reasons for their success.
Among the other linebackers to make the list was former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott at no. 16, who now plays for the New York Jets.
Gaither predicted to have a break-out season
*Chicago Tribune *writer Dan Pompeii wrote the first part of his annual list of players poised to have breakout seasons, which he bases off conversations with NFL talent evaluators. Focusing on the offense, Pompeii singled out Ravens tackle Jared Gaither for his play in 2008, and the promise he has for 2009:
The Ravens had so much confidence in Jared Gaither that they kept him on the left side after using their first-round draft pick on Michael Oher, who had been a left tackle in college. At 6-9, 330 pounds, Gaither has the size to dominate, and how he has the understanding of the scheme and the technique down. He and left guard Ben Grubbs work well together.
Gaither was a strong replacement for long-time tackle Jonathan Ogden, who retired after the 2007 season. What is even more impressive is that he played with practically one arm after injuring his shoulder in week 11.
Gaither appears to be preparing on the business side to have a strong season as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. He recently hired Drew Rosenhaus as his agent and could be looking for a long-term deal.
Ozzie Continues to Add Talent, Signs UFA Robby Felix
The Ravens signed undrafted free agent guard/center Robby Felix out of the University of Texas El-Paso today to further bolster the offensive line.
Felix, 6-3, 295 pounds, was a four-year starter at UTEP on the offensive line, earning All-American honors in his time there. His draft stock took a severe plummet, however, when he suffered a stroke just hours after playing in his final collegiate game last season.
"I was in the shower and my right side went numb and tingly and I couldn't speak," Felix said in an interview with the New York Daily News.
Felix spent months rehabbing, hoping to get his football career back on track, working with former Giants offensive lineman Billy Ard and former Chiefs Pro-Bowler Will Shields.
He ultimately made it to the NFL Scouting Combine three months after the stroke, scoring high on the bench press and 40-yard dash for his position. Many doctors and team officials were still concerned about his health, which led to him not being selected in the draft.
Felix found support from Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in 2005 and returned to play football less than a year later.
"He told me if he can do it, I can do it," Felix told the New York Daily News.
Ravens officials said after the conclusion of the Draft they were seeking players with toughness. After returning from a stroke, Robby Felix might be the toughest rookie of them all.
Notable: The Ravens practiced on their outdoor field despite it being a rainy and slightly chilly morning… Owner Steve Bisciottiwas on hand to watch practice today.