Finding The Sugar To Replace Ray-Ray
After 16 seasons in the NFL, Ray Lewis finally decided that the 2012-13 NFL Playoffs would be his final ride.
Despite missing much of the regular season, Lewis returned to play a key role in the Baltimore Ravens' journey to the second Super Bowl victory of his 17-year career. Even though he was notably limited by the triceps he had torn during the regular season, Lewis' inspiration and leadership at 37 years of age was important.
Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain may have been more impressive on the field, but there is no doubt that Lewis needs to be replaced for the long-term.
McClain was already starting alongside Lewis for the most part, but Ellerbe was expected to take over the starting role after being so impressive in McClain's place during the playoffs. However, Ellerbe left the Ravens during free agency after signing a $35 million, five-year-contract with the Miami Dolphins. Once Lewis retired, that left a significant void up the middle of the Ravens' front seven.
Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and McClain should all be healthy by the start of next season. Along with defensive line investments in free agency, those three being under contract means that the Ravens can concentrate on replacing Lewis.
The first week of free agency may have come and gone, but there are still viable options on the open market. Karlos Dansby, who Ellerbe replaced in Miami, is a proven veteran who would seamlessly step into Lewis' empty spot on the depth chart. Outside of the athletic Dansby, the Ravens could also consider Brad Jones, Nick Barnett, D.J. Williams or Bart Scott.
Considering each of those free agents have notable flaws, the Ravens are more likely to delve into the draft in order to find a starting inside linebacker. The much-discussed Manti Te'o should be available at the bottom of the first round while Arthur Brown, Kevin Minter or Alec Ogletree could be under consideration as well.
Thinking outside-the-box for a second, the Ravens could draft an outside linebacker to move Courtney Upshaw inside. Upshaw was drafted as an outside linebacker and played there as a rookie. However, Upshaw has minimal pass-rushing ability and the draft is full of pass-rushing talent that could fill the void left behind by Paul Kruger.
There is no one sure way to replace Ray Lewis, but GM Ozzie Newsome has plenty of avenues to explore.