I think of the future quite a bit. Especially when it comes to sports. If you play Madden long enough or daydream far enough, you see the Baltimore Ravens existing without Ray Lewis.
It’s odd to watch the Ravens play without number 52. It’s not glaring if you miss the pre-game introductions, and sometimes you don’t notice it immediately. In late 2005, you could flip on a game and conveniently forget Ray was out for the season for a couple plays. Then something feels off. The rhythm of the defense changes. The run-stopping happens deeper and deeper in the secondary. The intensity drops a few degrees. Tight ends get a little more brazen coming across the middle and quarterbacks start to relax their eyes downfield. For the first time in 57 games, it’s doubtful we’ll see Lewis on the field for Baltimore’s pivotal division game against Cincinnati. It’s going to happen eventually. Let’s use Sunday to mentally prepare, and think about who could possibly dream of stepping into Ray’s shoes one day.
Inside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens will go down in the league’s history as a “legacy position.” Everyone who is put atop the depth chart is going to come under immense scrutiny and pressure to fill Lewis’ shoes. Hell, everyone who puts on a Ravens jersey in some way is under pressure to deliver on Lewis’ legacy.
Playing the “mike” linebacker for Baltimore is going to be akin to playing quarterback for the Cowboys, running back for the Steelers, or linebacker for the Bears. The franchise just isn’t right when its legacy position is out of sorts. Think of how demoralized you would be if the Ravens trotted out a dude in Ray’s old spot. The reason they retired great players’ numbers isn’t just to honor them, but to spare anyone else the burden of donning those expectations literally on their back. It’s tricky business following a great act.
Part of keeping the legacy position in tact is succession planning. The Packers weren’t taking a flyer on Aaron Rodgers. They knew what they were doing. The guy who succeeded Brett Favre had to succeed. You can’t wait until the legends are ready to retire before figuring out who will step up to the throne. The Ravens have had some outstanding talent playing alongside Lewis at points in his career when he was far from retirement. Jamie Sharper, Peter Boulware, Edgerton Hartwell, Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott, Jarrett Johnson and Terrell Suggs have all lined up next to Lewis. Hartwell and Scott in particular were extremely formidable inside linebackers in their primes. Unfortunately, their primes were too close to Lewis’, and keeping so much money tied up in the middle of the defense just isn’t possible in today’s NFL.
The next Ray Lewis may not be out there, but his successor is. However, Lewis’ successor almost certainly isn’t wearing purple at the moment. If Lewis sits on Sunday, Ravens fans will be in for a healthy dose of Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, two sparkplug players who are (Ayanbadejo) and will likely be (Ellerbe) NFL journeymen. Whereas Lewis was picked in the first round, both his backups came to the league as undrafted free agents. Jameel McClain, another undrafted free agent who plays alongside Lewis in the middle and has been above average if not unspectacular as a complement to 52. Now in his fourth year, if McClain is hiding Lewis-like impact on the defense, he hasn’t shown many signs growing into Ray’s massive shoes.
The odds of nabbing another Lewis from another NFL team in free agency are slim. Certainly, there are talents that slip through the cracks, but legacy positions are almost always filled through the draft. Part of the legacy is that the fans and the franchise have belief that the pupil will step in and is capable of becoming the master. While this April’s NFL Draft was exceptionally weak at inside linebacker and lousy with excellent outside backers, the 2012 draft is shaping up to be the inverse scenario. Baltimore could find its successor in the middle to late first or second round. It’s impossible not to fantasize over which player this might be. Recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the possibilities.
Manti Te’o, a junior at Notre Dame, is to the Irish defense what Lewis is for the Ravens. At 6’2″, 255, his build resembles the future Hall of Famer who was told by many he was too small to play up the middle. Te’o’s polynesian ancestry could also be a factor in forming a kinship with the Ravens’ other defensive star, Haloti Ngata (Ngata’s parents are Tongan and Te’o went to President Obama’s high school in Hawai’i). Te’o’s physical tools are impressive, but like Lewis he plays the game between his ears better than almost anyone else at his position.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome loves to bring in fellow players from the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Bama native has found some gems from the Tide in Jarrett Johnson and Le’Ron McClain and there is a potentially bright one playing for Nick Saban as we speak. Dont’a Hightower, another junior, checks in a bit more upright than Teo at 6’4″ 260. However, the leader of the SEC’s toughest defense hits like a Raven already. While his lateral speed may force his NFL career to the outside of the tackles, he’s a force to be reckoned with in college football’s most NFL-ready division at the mike. Hightower is a great talent, but he may not even be the most complete linebacker on his own squad. Senior Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been a staple of those nasty Kirby Smart defenses and will come into the NFL and start. Just check out this pop from the Capital One Bowl. Who does that remind you of? You know Ozzie has seen every frame on these two and may be searching for signs of Lewis in these players.
Can you picture any of these three players donning the black helmet and suiting up on say, opening day 2013? Perhaps the next Ray Lewis isn’t coming from South Bend or Tuscaloosa. Maybe he’s lurking down in Chapel Hill in senior Zach Brown. Maybe he’s alone in some weight room in Chestnut Hill, in the form of Boston College junior Luke Kuechly. Perhaps he’ll come from the good fortune of a draft pick trade like Lewis did. Perhaps he’s a high school senior somewhere in Florida, as Lewis once was.
Wherever he is, he doesn’t have long. So much is asked of those who walk in the shadows of giants. Ray lewis is a legend, but he’s not immortal.
At least, as far as we know.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com