Finding an outside linebacker wasn’t necessarily viewed as the Ravens’ top priority heading into this week’s draft, but when they got set to make the 35th overall selection Friday, they couldn’t resist adding another potential impact defensive player and a pass-rushing complement to Terrell Suggs.
Temporarily ignoring their needs on the offensive line, the Ravens made linebacker Courtney Upshaw, a defensive standout on an Alabama team that won the national championship last season, their first selection of the 2012 draft.
“When I was a kid, most of us and I can probably speak for a lot of players especially on the defensive side, to play with Ray Lewis, you dream of that one day,” said Upshaw who traveled to Baltimore from New York via train Friday and will visit the team facility Saturday morning. “I can’t do nothing but smile once I got the call. I tried to get the tough guy act going. My family, they were getting teary-eyed and stuff. I didn’t want them to see me … crying, teary-eyed. I’m excited and ready to get it going.”
The selection of Upshaw kicked off a busy second day of the draft for the Ravens, who also added some depth on the offensive line and at running back. The Ravens used their second pick of the night – and 60th overall – on Iowa State guard/tackle Kelechi Osemele, who will compete with Jah Reid for the left guard spot vacated by Ben Grubbs’ departure to the New Orleans Saints.
They then moved up seven spots in the third round, sending their 91st pick in that round, along with a fifth-rounder (164th overall) to the Atlanta Falcons, to get into position to take Temple running back Bernard Pierce. He rushed for 3,570 yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons at Temple.
The Ravens considered taking Upshaw on Thursday with their first-round pick (29 overall) but opted to trade that selection to the Minnesota Vikings for their second-round pick (35th overall) and a fourth-rounder. They then waited through the first two selections of the second round – the St. Louis Rams selected Appalachian State wide receiver Brian Quick and the Indianapolis Colts selected Stanford tight end Coby Fleener – before being able to tab Upshaw.
“I’m sure if you had asked us back in October or November, would Courtney make it to the third pick in the second round, everybody would have probably said, ‘probably not,’” said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. “When you talk about Courtney, this still is a game that we call football and Courtney is a football player. Obviously, he played at [my] alma mater and I’ve had the opportunity to watch him a lot.”
Upshaw, who is 6-foot-1 and 272 pounds, played in 50 games over his four-year Alabama career, registering 140 career tackles and 16 1/2 sacks. He had his best season this past year, starting 12 of 13 games and registering 51 tackles, including 17 for losses, 8 1/2 sacks and one interception.
Upshaw played both defensive end and outside linebacker in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at Alabama, and there is some question where he profiles best in the NFL. However, he’ll fill a definitive need for the Ravens, who were not only looking to add another pass rusher, but find a potential replacement for outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who signed with the San Diego Chargers a couple of days into free agency.
Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle and Albert McClellan also are in line to fill some of the void left by Johnson’s departure. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that Kruger remains the “lead dog” to replace Johnson, but acknowledged that Upshaw will be in the mix and adds both depth and physicality to the defense.
One of Johnson’s best qualities was his ability to set the edge against the running game and Ravens director of player personnel said that it is also a trait that Upshaw possesses.
“That’s his specialty,” DeCosta said. “That’s one of the things that was so attractive about him. He plays like a junkyard dog. He has a strong punch. He is a physical, dominant football player. We’re excited about that. That’s not an easy position to play. A lot of guys can’t do that. A lot of guys can rush the passer, a lot of guys can drop and play in space, but setting the edge is really one of the one most important things at that position and we feel this guy can do that.”
When the draft process started months ago, Upshaw wasn't connected to the Ravens because no one thought he would drop to the late first round, never mind early second round. However, his status took a significant hit after an uneven performance at the Senior Bowl and an indifferent one at the NFL Combine. Upshaw, 22, also did not work out at his Pro Day because of knee tendinitis.