Heading into the first practice, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of each position, focusing on who will be in the thick of the competition come training camp. Today, the inside linebackers take the spotlight.
Except for one quick mandatory minicamp, all spring practices in the NFL are voluntary, allowing many of the more-tenured veterans to follow their own regimen.
Ray Lewis typically takes this route, and judging by his nine Pro Bowl selections, the routine works for the 13-year veteran.
Still, when Lewis surprisingly arrived at Ravens headquarters April 17 to officially start the offseason, No. 52 showed everybody that he can still operate at that All-Star level, in spite of his 33 years.
"I think he just wanted for all the new coaches to see that, hey, this is Ray Lewis," said defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who enters his 10th season in Baltimore. "He made some spectacular plays like we always have seen. I know eventually he's going to have to slow down; I just don't see it happening in the near future. He looked tremendous."
He didn't make it on the field for every single snap, but the plays he did take at middle linebacker were eye-opening. Lewis flew to the ball with his trademark intensity, bounding around the turf with the exuberance of a rookie.
"Ray had to jump out there," Ryan continued. "He was in great shape, and that age is just a number right now. He's an unusual guy, and hopefully he can [play] three or four more years – who knows?"**
Another reason Lewis made sure he was on-hand for the first Ravens practice under new head coach John Harbaugh was to show support for Baltimore's budding regime. Soon after Harbaugh was hired in January, there was speculation about how the players would react to a change.
Consistently asked about it during his brief stay in Charm City, Lewis, who is regularly judged as an emotional barometer of the locker room, quickly quelled any rumored grumblings.
"John is a great guy," Lewis noted. "He's a person that likes to have fun. He just likes to have fun. His energy is incredible. He loves football. He's running around most of the time always teaching almost as much as your position coach does. It was kind of exciting out there. I just love the tempo. I'm just excited about football.
"Any time you go through change you look for the bad things to come in, but when you have someone who really relates to the players the way John does, I just think practice is going great."
Entering the final year of his current contract, Lewis is determined put a disappointing 5-11 campaign in 2007 in the rearview mirror, making a transition to Harbaugh's tough, no-nonsense approach welcome.
"[With] John, you have a new personality, we have a totally new coaching staff and we have a lot of new players coming in," said Lewis. "You don't want to let them come in and hear you talking about [last season]. Last year's done. There was one Super Bowl champion at the end of that year and that was the New York Giants – bottom line.
"We have to come back, and I think everybody has that same mentality. It's a new season, new era."
Lewis' words ring true. The Ravens recently experienced the end of one era with the retirement of tackle Jonathan Ogden, who made up the inaugural first-round draft class in franchise history along with the linebacker.
But even through Baltimore's season opener on Sept. 7 will be Lewis' 169th career game, he has no intention of ending another era quite yet.
Here is a breakdown of Baltimore's linebackers:
2007:Lewis was named to his ninth Pro Bowl after starting 14 games before missing the final two with a finger injury. His 184 tackles led the team, and he even added 10 passes defensed, the second-highest total in his career.
Forecast:Lewis returns for his 13th year as the centerpiece of the NFL's most dominant defense. In search of a second Super Bowl ring, Ray looks to further entrench his mark as an immortal figure in Baltimore sports' history. Much speculation will be made on whether he will be re-signed by the team at the end of the season.
2007:Scott continued his strong momentum of 2006 by starting all 16 games and totaling 131 stops. The seven-year veteran had nine contests where he netted double-digits in tackles.
Forecast:Scott is also entering the final year of his contract, so he'll definitely be looking for a breakout performance. After he totaled 9.5 sacks two years ago, Scott only managed one last season because he was dropping into coverage more often. Expect him to return to his pass-rushing roots this year.
2007:Greisen was a critical backup after he was signed after Week 2. He played in 14 games, starting the final two when Lewis went down. In addition to his 13 special teams tackles, Greisen recorded 38 stops from scrimmage.
Forecast:The Ravens will continue to count on Greisen to provide depth behind Lewis. He has been a regular starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, so his experience is key.
2007:The former seventh-round draft pick was hampered by injuries to his shoulder, which kept Smith on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and Injured Reserve for the entire season.
Forecast:Smith had another surgery on his shoulder in the offseason and will hope to make it back on the field by training camp. He could open a second-consecutive year on the PUP list, however.
2007:McCune was mainly a special teams performer, playing in two games and totaling four special teams stops. He signed with the Ravens in November, making the active roster on Dec. 22.
Forecast:McCune will have to prove his worth on special teams against a crowded field that includes linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo and Gary Stills.
2007:The 71st-overall pick in this year's draft led Miami with 100 tackles as a senior, adding three fumble recoveries.
Forecast:Already, Gooden is earning comparisons to fellow Miami alumnus Lewis with his nose for the ball and athletic ability. He should be able to make it on the field for some special teams contributions.
2007:An undrafted free agent, McClain was prolific as a senior at Syracuse, starting all 12 contests. He set a career high with 77 tackles.
Forecast:McClain is making a transition from defensive end to full-time linebacker, and it seems to be going well. With a solid preseason performance, he's going to compete for a practice squad spot by showing he can succeed with the switch.