Top linebacker may fall to 24th

Northwestern's Harris could be available for Ravens' first-round pick

April 18, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Though they have a relatively late first-round pick in this weekend's NFL draft, the Ravens could walk away with the top linebacker.

Numerous projections have no linebackers going before the Ravens' 24th selection, and if that happens, Northwestern's Napoleon Harris would be hard to pass up.

Harris is widely regarded as the best linebacker and could fit in immediately with the Ravens, who are switching to a 3-4 defense this season.

At 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds, Harris has the size and speed to play inside next to Ray Lewis or outside, where he would also serve as a rush defensive end.

Harris spent all of last season at end and had subpar statistics (three sacks and 78 tackles). But he was out of position after playing the two previous seasons at linebacker, where he was better able to showcase his punishing hitting and sideline-to-sideline range. The Oakland Raiders, who have the 21st pick, are one of the few teams in need of a linebacker that could beat the Ravens to Harris.

"He's one of those players in the draft that you feel like you really know what you are going to get," said Phil Savage, Ravens director of college scouting. "He's clean on and off the field. In order to get their best 11 on the field, [Northwestern] moved him back down to end. But he played linebacker at the Senior Bowl.

"He's got good competitiveness. He's got size, strength, runs well and passed every test. He had a good season, did well at the Senior Bowl and the combine. He can't do anything more to increase his stock."

The Ravens lost linebacker Jamie Sharper in the expansion draft to the Houston Texans, and free-agent backup Brad Jackson signed with the Carolina Panthers.

The departures and the new scheme make drafting a linebacker a priority. The Ravens plan to move end Adalius Thomas to outside linebacker.

"The plays in the 3-4 are to be made by the linebackers," said Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome.

"You want people who can run and hit. Linebackers are also pretty good special teams players, too. Nobody is going to come in and supplant Ray Lewis. But that guy could be a good backup, play on all our special teams.

"We are at a unique position. Adalius is a guy who can play linebacker or defensive end. So if you get an outside linebacker that you really like, then Adalius can play end, and that will give you one more good player on the field."

If the Ravens wait until the second round, the team could still wind up with a highly regarded player. UCLA's Robert Thomas or North Carolina State's Levar Fisher may slip down to the Ravens' 56th pick.

Thomas, who is a little light at 230 pounds, was a consensus All-American and the Pacific-10's Defensive Player of the Year, and Fisher won All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors last season after making 148 tackles.

"Thomas is extremely instinctive," Savage said. "At times, you think he is on a blitz because he is in the backfield so fast. The knock on him is that he is small. He's going to be able to gain some weight, but that is always going to be a hang-up on him.

"Fisher was beat up a little bit this year in terms of a knee, and I think maybe an ankle. He is somebody all the ACC teams knew where he was and respected him."

Michigan's Larry Foote, Florida's Andra Davis, Oklahoma's Rocky Calmus and Kansas State's Ben Leber may draw the Ravens' interest late in the draft.

At a glance

What:NFL draft

When:Saturday (rounds 1-3) and Sunday (rounds 4-7)

Where:New York

TV:Saturday, ESPN (noon-7 p.m.); ESPN2 (7 p.m.-conclusion). Sunday, ESPN (11 a.m.-1 p.m.); ESPN2 (1 p.m.-conclusion)

Ravens' picks:

Rd. 1: 24th Rd. 6: 195th

Rd. 2: 56th Rd. 6: 206th

Rd. 3: 87th Rd. 6: 207th

Rd. 4: 123rd Rd. 6: 209th

Rd. 5: 159th Rd. 7: 236th

Linebacker picks

A look at the Ravens' history at drafting linebackers:

Year Player (round)

2001 Ed Hartwell (4)

1998 Ron Rogers (6)

1997 Peter Boulware (1)

1997 Jamie Sharper (2)

1997 Tyrus McCloud (4)

1997 Cornell Brown (6)

1996 Ray Lewis (1)

1996 Dexter Daniels (6)

On the board?

The Ravens have the 24th pick in the first round, the 56th pick in the second round and 87th pick in the third round of Saturday's NFL draft. Linebackers who are projected to land in those rounds:

Round 1

Player, School Ht./Wt. Skinny

Napoleon Harris, N'western 6-2/250 Can hit and run

Round 2

Robert Thomas, UCLA 6-0/230 Undersized but instinctive

Levar Fisher, N.C. State 6-1/233 Undervalued but solid

Saleem Rasheed, Alabama 6-2/230 More speed than size

Later rounds

Ben Taylor, Virginia Tech; Trev Faulk, LSU; Bradley Jennings, Florida State; Nick Rogers, Georgia Tech

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