Ravens enamored with 'tweeners

OWINGS MILLS -- Seven years ago as a Southern Mississippi senior, Adalius Thomas was such an abstract concept as a football player that prospective NFL employers weren't sure how to categorize him. So, they basically shunned him until the Baltimore Ravens drafted the athletic outside linebacker and defensive end in the sixth round.

Now, Thomas is an All-Pro who propelled his ability to play linebacker, defensive end, safety, defensive tackle and even cornerback into a $35 million contract with the New England Patriots last month.
With Thomas' success along with the advent of the 3-4 defense and other complex schemes popularized by the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ravens, teams covet versatility at outside linebacker.
The so-called ‘tweener, a mobile athlete with pass-rush ability and coverage potential that's regarded as too small to be a classic hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, is definitely in vogue.
"Teams are looking for that type of guy who can do more than one thing," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "It's a pattern league. Because of the success, New England, Pittsburgh and us, to a degree have had, more teams are going to a 3-4.
"It puts a huge premium on outside linebackers. If you get a guy who's 260 pounds as a defensive end, his best bet may be in the 3-4. Because of Adalius Thomas, more and more teams are looking for a guy like him."
With Thomas' departure, the Ravens could be in the market for a specialized outside linebacker with the 29th overall pick or further down in the draft.
Although Baltimore signed Jarret Johnson to a five-year contract and promoted him as Thomas' replacement, the converted defensive end only has three career sacks. The team still hopes that Dan Cody, a former second-round pick who has been plagued by knee injuries, could contribute as a situational rusher.
One player on the Ravens' radar is undersized, active Purdue defensive end Anthony Spencer. At 6-foot-3, 261 pounds, Spencer was described as the toughest guy to block in the Big Ten Conference by Wisconsin's Joe Thomas and Penn State's Levi Brown, two potential top 10 left tackles.
Spencer registered a nation-high 26 ½ tackles for losses as a senior along with 10 ½ sacks and five forced fumbles, significantly boosting his stock.
"Spencer is one of the better pass rushers in the draft," DeCosta said. "He's got heavy hands and he's strong as a run defender. He's got a good first step. He's an athletic player who can turn and finish. We like him."
Meanwhile, Florida State outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is another multi-dimensional player.
Although the 6-1, 235-pounder is two inches shorter than initially advertised, he has 4.64 speed. He led FSU with 18 tackles for losses and scored touchdowns off a blocked punt, fumble recovery and an interception. Also, he doesn't turn 21 until May 14.
"Timmons is a jack of all trades," said DeCosta, referring to his backround at defensive end, strongside linebacker, inside linebacker, safety and in nickel packages. "He's explosive and he has a bright future. He's intriguing because he can rush the passer, play in space, can cover and play the run.
"He's the kind of guy we like because he can do so many things. That's an attractive thing in today's NFL environment."
Baltimore has also been tracking University of Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss, a 6-6, 250-pounder with 4.73 speed. He has 15 sacks in the past two seasons, including two in the national championship victory over Ohio State.
"I think he offers versatility," DeCosta said. "If it's a 4-3, he's probably going to be an end. If it's a 3-4, he's probably going to be an outside linebacker or a sub rusher in a hybrid defense or maybe a SAM or rush linebacker. "He needs to gain some weight and work on his upper body and lower body strength, but he's one of the more intriguing guys in this year's draft."
Moss did raise character concerns when he was suspended for two games last season after blocking two kicks against South Carolina. He acknowledged to reporters at the NFL scouting combine that he tested positive for marijuana on Oct. 15 last year.
"I tested positive for marijuana, and it was a mistake just like any other person makes a mistake," said Moss, who once drew comparisons to Jevon Kearse as a high-profile recruit. "I got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a real humbling thing for me, and it allowed me to put things back in perspective."
At 6-1, 266 pounds with 4.7 speed, Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley definitely fits the ‘tweener mold. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year led the conference with 12 sacks, had 16 ½ tackles for losses and set a school record with 10 career forced fumbles.
The Ravens met last week with Notre Dame defensive end Victor Abiamiri, a big Gilman graduate at 6-4, 270 pounds with 18 ½ sacks in the past two seasons. Plus, Nebraska outside linebacker Stewart Bradley visited Baltimore along with South Florida standout Stephen Nicholas.
"These guys are attractive because they do more than one thing," DeCosta said. "That has become very important over the last four or five years."
CHARTING THE 'TWEENERS
With All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas signing with the New England Patriots during the veteran signing period, the Baltimore Ravens could use another versatile defender. Highly-regarded linebacker prospects like Miami's Jon Beason and Penn State's Paul Posluszny are more likely to project as inside linebackers or true 4-3 weakside linebackers in most NFL schemes, which is why they aren't included in this list.
Here's a look at a few of the classic ‘tweener outside linebacker/defensive end prospects that could be available when the Ravens are on the clock with the 29th overall pick, or further down in the draft:
THE ELITE
Player School Size Speed
1. Lawrence Timmons Florida State 6-1, 235 4.65
2. Anthony Spencer Purdue 6-2, 261 4.69
3. Jarvis Moss Florida 6-6, 251 4.73
SECOND TIER
4. LaMarr Woodley Michigan 6-1, 268 4.74
5. Victor Abiamiri Notre Dame 6-4, 270 4.82
6. Ikaika Alama-Francis Hawaii 6-5 277 4.60
7. Quentin Moses Georgia 6-5, 260 4.82
8. Stewart Bradley Nebraska 6-3, 252 4.71
9. Tim Crowder Texas 6-3, 273 4.68
10. Brian Robison Texas 6-3 261 4.69
SLEEPERS
1. Quincy Black New Mexico 6-1, 237 4.43
2. Antwan Barnes Florida International 6-0 238 4.45
3. Baraka Atkins Miami 6-4, 269 4.67
4. C.J. Ah You Oklahoma 6-3, 275 4.70
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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