Fans and media members have been buzzing this preseason about the Ravens' impressive crop of undrafted rookie free agents competing to make the 53-man roster.
But it's actually an undrafted rookie from last season, linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who has quietly put together a strong preseason and is competing for a starting job in the middle of Baltimore's defense.
Onwuasor made a statement in Saturday night's 13-9 victory over the Buffalo Bills. He split first-team reps at inside linebacker with last year's second-round pick Kamalei Correa, and he sealed the victory in the fourth quarter when he forced a fumble and then recovered it.
"We want to have guys that make plays that count the most," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "On the sideline, I heard [Terrell] Suggs say, 'We need someone to step up and make a play.' That's what has to happen in those situations and in these types of games, and [Onwuasor] came up with the big play."
Onwuasor's emergence seems to have re-opened the competition for the weak-side linebacker position next to Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley.
Correa had taken virtually all the starting reps in training camp and the early part of the preseason, and the Ravens wanted to see him separate himself in the competition. The coaches have praised Correa for his play in practice, but stressed that they want to see it translate into games.
The Ravens could also end up treating that linebacker spot as a position-by-committee, giving Correa, Onwuasor and even safety Anthony Levine snaps based on the situation.
"Correa could start the game and then have me come in and relieve him," Onwuasor said. "There are no 'twos' on this defense. We're all 'ones.' The coaches expect the same thing from me if I go in and relieve him if he needs a breather. We all help each other out. Everything else is up to the coaches.
The fact that Onwuasor is pushing Correa for snaps shouldn't come as a major surprise, as he was an important piece of last year's team. Onwuasor was one of Baltimore's top special teamers, and he had 21 tackles in 11 games last season.
When starter Zachary Orr went on injured reserve at the end of the season, the Ravens gave Onwuasor the start at linebacker. He had seven tackles in that Week 17 game.
An area where Onwuasor has an edge over the other linebackers is with his coverage skills. At 6-foot-0, 227 pounds, Onwuasor is undersized for a traditional linebacker. But he can also match up well in coverage, which is critical in today's pass-happy NFL.
"My strengths are that I can cover a tight end, slots, and backs," Onwuasor said. "I need to work on coming downhill and getting the big guys off me a little quicker."
The Ravens don't plan to play their starters in the preseason finale Thursday night in New Orleans, but Onwuasor could still see some reps if the Ravens want to get another look at him before the regular season. He pushed the coaches to play the entire game Saturday, and he may do the same this week.
The inside linebacker spot is one of the few spots still undecided at the end of the preseason, and the coaches will take a hard look at the tape to determine who gets the starting nod to open the season.
"He has a large role on the defense," Harbaugh said about Onwuasor. "He plays a lot on the defense. He's competing the same way Kamalei is competing. We'll look at the tapes and see all the details, but that [fumble] was a huge play."