With leading figure upset, Ravens must reconfigure

NFL draft

April 25, 2006

There's life after Ray, and it's time to start preparing.

Everything about the Ravens' offseason maneuvering indicates team officials sought instant fixes that would help the team compete immediately. In this weekend's NFL draft, though, the Ravens need to show foresight that extends beyond the 2006 season.

Time for the Ravens to get their affairs in order. Ray Lewis won't be around forever. And the time to start addressing that reality is the first round of this year's draft.

The Ravens apparently don't think they can upgrade their offensive line Saturday. Their priorities seem focused around chasing a defensive tackle or a safety on the first day of the draft. But Lewis' comments last week should have revamped the team's draft game plan.

A lot will happen between now and when the Ravens are officially on the clock. But if linebacker Ernie Sims is available, selecting the Florida State product with the 13th pick might make the most sense. If the Ravens try to swap the early pick and move down, Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson deserves some consideration in the second round, or even late in the first.

I wouldn't have said this just one week ago. Because just one week ago, Lewis was still biting his tongue like it was a T-bone, and Ravens coaches and administrators were intentionally spreading false information, repeating claims that Lewis is happy in Baltimore, that he'd never requested a trade.

We now know better. In a pair of television interviews - strategically granted right before the draft - Lewis made his feelings clear: He doesn't want to be here.

The Ravens can't trade Lewis right now. They'd never get anything resembling equal value in return. But they're facing a stark reality for next season and beyond, and it'd be silly to plan on seeing Lewis next fall performing at the top of his game.

If Lewis isn't traded, how could anyone expect the effort and energy that have charmed fans for the past decade? Last season, you could see his enthusiasm seep out, like a tire with a slow leak. Ten total tackles in Week 1. Then nine in each of the next two games. Then eight. Then five. And five again. And don't forget how he withdrew in the locker room, playing a childish passive-aggressive game of control with both his teammates and his coach.

If Lewis doesn't get his way this offseason, does anyone foresee him barging into the complex this summer and passing out hugs, kisses and fruit baskets?

(You want to throw last season out the window because Lewis says he was injured? OK, look at the difference from 2003 to 2004. His tackles were down and his interceptions were down. Ed Reed didn't just assume the role of defensive leader; Lewis handed it to him.)

The Ravens cannot approach the 2006 season assuming that they have a legitimate Pro Bowler starting at middle linebacker. Team brass must consider alternatives that might not have even been on the table a week ago.

Selecting a young linebacker like Sims - who played outside at Florida State but is certainly athletic enough to move inside - gives the Ravens a bit of flexibility next year and some definite direction for the following years.

The other options just don't make as much sense:

Trade up and select Vince Young? Though that could pay dividends down the road, it doesn't jibe with the Ravens' win-now approach.

Find a nose tackle? A great idea, but the best of the bunch - Oregon's Haloti Ngata - probably won't be around at 13.

Select quarterback Jay Cutler? Not in the plans.

So then we have the most likely scenario: The Ravens trade down and address holes in the secondary. Not a bad decision because this is the team's most pressing need, but this is an area that the Ravens could just as easily address later in the draft.

You know what they'd get late in the first round? A gamble.

The most likely candidates are Tennessee's Jason Allen and Florida State's Antonio Cromartie. Allen suffered a season-ending hip injury last year that caused him to miss the Vols' final six games, and Cromartie is one of the scariest players on the board.

He missed all of last season with a knee injury and hasn't played a football game in more than a year. Even more astonishing: He started just one game in his entire college career. Is a risk like that worth trading down for? Worth the money of a first-round pick? Worth entering the season with nothing but uncertainty sandwiched between a pair of outside linebackers?

The deck has been reshuffled. A new need has joined the fray. It may not seem like the most pressing - after all, Bart Scott has already re-signed - but aside from the quarterback position, it could be the most important addition of the offseason.

The past week - the loosening of Lewis' lips - has made clear that the Ravens are staring at too much uncertainty to ignore this problem Saturday.

Addressing the middle linebacker question mark may or may not result in an immediate impact, but it would be a much-needed attempt at a long-term solution.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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