Ravens could make a real catch at linebacker position

As draft features receivers, team could fill other needs by taking talent passed by

Pro Football

April 19, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

If the Ravens decide to use one of their early-round picks on a linebacker, chances are he would be top-notch.

With so much attention given to this year's receivers, the linebackers have been largely overlooked and, according to numerous draft projections, will continue to be in the first round.

Only Miami's Dan Morgan is considered to be a top-15 pick. Things get sketchy after that, but most figure former Dunbar star Tommy Polley to be the next linebacker selected. When that will be is debatable. The Ravens brought in Polley, 6 feet 4 1/4 , 234 pounds, a few weeks ago for a workout in anticipation that he still might be available when they pick 31st.

The Ravens' need for a linebacker diminished significantly when Jamie Sharper re-signed last month. Still, Polley may be too tempting to pass up considering the Ravens have only one backup under contract and could lose valuable special teams players to free agency.

"The thing people like about him is the fact that he gets his hands on the football," said Phil Savage, Ravens director of college scouting. "He bats away passes, gets interceptions, causes fumbles, blocks kicks. He's got that athletic, innate ability to make a play on the football."

Polley came back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Sugar Bowl during his junior year to have a solid senior season for Florida State. He recorded 100 tackles although his season was not as productive as the previous year.

Savage said it takes many players two years to fully recover from severe knee injuries, and cited Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who tore up his knee as a sophomore leading to an off year as a junior at Tennessee, as an example.

Even closer to Polley's situation is Buffalo Bills linebacker Sam Cowart, who also starred at Florida State and severely injured his knee in the 1996 Orange Bowl. Cowart missed the following year, then had an outstanding senior season but faced questions about his knee before the 1998 draft. Cowart slid into the second round and has since become a Pro Bowl selection.

A similar scenario easily could play out for Polley.

"Polley came back and rehabbed extremely hard so he wouldn't miss any time," Savage said. "He's going to be a little bit like Jamal in that another year removed from a knee injury, he's going to be better in 2001 than in 2000. It's not that he played poorly at FSU. He didn't, but he is probably going to play better at the NFL level."

If Polley or another linebacker is selected with an early pick, it undoubtedly will be as a backup for at least two seasons.

The Ravens have one of the NFL's best linebacking corps: Sharper, Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. But Brad Jackson is the only other experienced linebacker under contract, and the Ravens are likely to lose Cornell Brown to free agency.

With having to re-sign safety Rod Woodson and all the draft picks, the Ravens don't have much room under the salary cap to pick up a veteran backup linebacker. That leaves the draft, where any linebacker selected better be ready to contribute immediately on special teams.

The Ravens lost Keith Washington to the Broncos; linebacker O.J. Brigance and receiver Billy Davis remain unsigned. All contributed heavily last year to special teams.

Ravens vice president of personnel Ozzie Newsome said many star linebackers in college made their mark on special teams.

"A lot of them played special teams as underclassmen," Newsome said. "And a lot of them still do now. One of the main questions we asked the linebackers we interviewed at the combine is, `What is their special teams history?'

"If you can see a guy that can play in space, that can run and tackle, then that guy is going to be a good special teams player. In order for any of our backups - safeties, linebackers, corners, running backs, tight ends - to dress on Sundays, they have to be able to play special teams; otherwise, they won't dress. Whoever we get to be the linebacker will have to play special teams."

If the Ravens wait until the second round, they could still wind up with North Carolina's Sedrick Hodge, a linebacker who excels in open space. Hodge, at 6 feet 3 3/4 and 244 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine, faster than many wide receivers.

A three-year starter, Hodge finished his senior season with 82 tackles - 16 behind the line of scrimmage.

"He is a player that wouldn't be shocking to see someone in the first round take a flyer on him," Savage said. "But when you look at the tape, he's not overly physical or instinctive. But he's a tall, fast linebacker that somebody is going to try and make a player out of."

If Hodge is not available, the Ravens could turn to Syracuse linebacker Morlon Greenwood, Southern California's Markus Steele or Tennessee's Eric Westmoreland. All are thought to be late second- or early third-round picks.

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