Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Monday, May 21, 2007

INSIDE THE RAVENS: OUTSIDE LB ANALYSIS


OWINGS MILLS -- At first glance, it might appear to the untrained eye that the Baltimore Ravens still have a gaping hole at outside linebacker created by All-Pro Adalius Thomas' departure.

However, Thomas' migration to the New England Patriots isn't going to necessarily curtail production dramatically at this critical position for the defending AFC North champions.

Yes, new starter Jarret Johnson lacks the elite mobility and athleticism that Thomas possesses. He's a hard-nosed, blue-collar converted Alabama defensive end who's very good against the run and won't embarrass himself in short-area coverage
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He was an excellent pass rusher for the Crimson Tide, but that has only translated into three career sacks in limited pass rushing opportunities in the NFL. It's unclear if he's going to be more than a five to six sack guy annually as a starter.

The Ravens might lose some sack production with Thomas leaving, but I don't think they're going to suffer against the run because Johnson is a very good run-stopper. Judging from his condition at last week's minicamp, Johnson has gotten himself into lean, mean shape. Including a much shorter haircut.

On third downs, he's going to need some help, though – at least some of the time. That means a more multi-faceted role for Pro Bowl inside linebacker Bart Scott in terms of pass coverage and blitzing even more than last year when he led all NFL inside linebackers in sacks. As a former dime back and college safety, Scott is the best candidate to make up for Thomas' loss in specialized situations where he thrived because of his ability to morph seamlessly between outside linebacker, safety and defensive end.

Plus, the Ravens can employ third-year outside linebacker/defensive end Dan Cody as a situational pass rusher. After two-injury plagued seasons, Cody is finally healthy. He informed me that he's bigger and stronger than ever and he didn't appear to favor his knees at minicamp. His mobility looked like it's all the way back.

Obviously, the former Oklahoma star has to hold up physically to produce at an optimal level. The Ravens are banking on that happening this year.

Meanwhile, rookie outside linebacker Antwan Barnes represents an X-factor in reserve. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Barnes has 4.45 speed, fastest among all incoming rookie linebackers, and did 31 bench presses of 225 pounds. Although he might cut his teeth on special teams, the Ravens have plans for him as a pass rusher and want to see how he handles his special-teams assignments before they get him on the field defensively.

There's a big upside with Barnes. This kid is definitely hungry.

Veteran special teams ace Gary Stills has proven pass rush skills, but is up there in years. He still has the skills to get to the quarterback, but it might be asking a lot of him to bust the wedge and burst past offensive tackles on a regular basis. He's still one of the top athletes and toughest guys on this team.

Bottom line: It takes more than one man to replace Adalius Thomas, but the Ravens appear to have the right people to do so collectively. They also have the right coach in defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to get the most out of the available personnel.

One more thing to keep in mind: If the NFL's top-ranked defense does take a half-step or full step back at one position, will it be a noticeable drop off?

The smart money says, 'Nope.'