NFL Draft: Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- Not even bone-breaking Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis will play forever. Lewis was selected to his 12th Pro Bowl last season as he led the defense with 145 tackles to go with two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. According to linebackers coach Dean Pees, Lewis only came off the field for five of the Ravens' 1,111 defensive snaps last season.

However, the 35-year-old recently indicated that he won't play more than a few more seasons. Other than starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain, none of the Ravens' young linebackers, including Dannell Ellerbe or Tavares Gooden, have distinguished themselves on a consistent basis or been durable.

"The thing about getting a good young linebacker would be special teams," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We want to have the best special teams in the National Football League. And if you get good, young linebackers, normally they can run, they can hit, they can play in space and do some things.

"So, we'll always be looking for that. Whoever has the opportunity to be the one to replace Ray, I don't know whether that guy is here now or will be in another class that we would draft, we will always be looking to draft linebackers because we want great special teams."

Although the Ravens aren't pushing Lewis out of the door of the training complex and are careful in any public statements they make about his longevity, they are making draft preparations that suggest they want to start grooming an eventual successor in the middle of the defense. The Ravens hosted Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson for an official visit. Wilson is the consensus top-ranked inside linebacker in the draft and is regarded as a potential late first-round draft pick.

They spent a lot of time talking with University of Washington linebacker Mason Foster at the Senior Bowl. Foster has drawn second-round grades. And the Ravens sent Pees to California to conduct a private workout with Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is more than brawn. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

There have been some questions surrounding a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery to repair the damage and sidelined him for the majority of his sophomore year. He played last season with a neck roll. Last season, he recorded 112 tackles, 11 1/2 for losses, four sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, fumble recovery and a blocked kick and was named first-team All-Big Ten Conference. "I think Martez Wilson would be a great fit on first and second downs and rushing the quarterback on third downs," said Russ Lande, a Sporting News' draft analyst and former NFL scout. "There are some concerns about the neck and character, some off-field stuff, but he's got real talent."

Like Lewis, Michigan State middle linebacker Greg Jones was an extremely productive college player. The Big Ten Conference standout is also undersized at 5-11, 245 pounds, but is known for his leadership.

People are downgrading Jones for his lack of athleticism and are concerned that he might only be a great college player and could wash out in the NFL.v

"I could see the Ravens being in love with this kid," Lande said. "He's a leader. He's got the kind of aura that players swarm around him. He's got charisma. Ozzie likes leaders like him. He's not small. He's just short and he's a hitter. He will smack you."

Foster visited the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds at his Pro Day workout.

Foster is an extremely reliable tackling presence who led the Pac-10 Conference in tackles with 163 stops last season.

The All-Pac-10 Conference linebacker and third-team All-American selection finished second in the nation in tackles and led the Pac-10 for the past two seasons.

"I like him a lot," Lande said. "He's right there with Greg Jones. He's a little thicker, a little better versus big blockers. He's a very good player. I think he's going to go in the second round. He's tough and aggressive."

Matthews is on the mend a shoulder injury suffered while bench pressing during the combine. The injury was a subluxation of his left shoulder and didn't require surgery.

Matthews forced Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton to fumble during the national championship game. He recorded 79 tackles to lead the team in tackles last season, intercepting three passes and recovering three fumbles with nine tackles for losses. He was named the Ducks' Most Outstanding Player.

"Good blood lines, but I wonder if he fits what the Ravens do," Lande said. "He's more of a 4-3 guy who's protected from what I saw on film. He's an athletic kid who runs to the ball and makes plays. Blockers ride him out of the play and he's not a factor. I think he would be better off in a scheme like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

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