Searching for the next Ray Lewis

OWINGS MILLS -- Ray Lewis struck another intimidating pose with his trademark intensity captured in an oversized photograph. Although the picture of the Baltimore Ravens' perennial All-Pro middle linebacker was from a few years ago, Lewis seems to be aging gracefully.

Lewis mended fences with the organization last season and led the NFL's top-ranked defense with 164 tackles along with five sacks and two interceptions while Bart Scott thrived alongside him. Yet, the Ravens are approaching a time when they'll begin pondering an eventual future that doesn't include Lewis' emphatic tackles.
The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been selected to eight Pro Bowls, but he'll turn 32 next month.
That milestone raises two questions: How much longer can he play? Is there anyone in this draft that represents a potential successor to Lewis' throne?
"I don't know how long Ray can play," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I think he will make the decision when he wants to retire from this game. But if there's a good player at No. 29 or No. 61 or if we move back and there's a good linebacker, we're going to take him. "We're not going to pass up a good player because we have Pro Bowl players at certain positions. We don't operate that way."
Although Ole Miss' Patrick Willis is the draft's elite inside linebacker and will likely be picked within the top half of the first round, there are still a few prospects that would likely be appropriate fits for Baltimore at No. 29 overall.
The Ravens' draft manual was practically written for an athlete like University of Miami star Jon Beason, a 6-foot, 235-pound converted fullback and safety capable of playing all three linebacker positions in the 4-3 scheme. Known as a big hitter, Beason improved his 40-yard dash time from 4.72 seconds at the NFL scouting combine to 4.60 at his campus workouts.
"Jon Beason would probably be an inside linebacker for us," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "We love his instincts and playmaking ability. He's probably best suited for the 4-3.
"He makes a ton of plays. He's a great person with great intangibles and mentality who watches a ton of tape. The more you watch him, the more you fall in love with him."
Added Newsome: "People want to compare him to Ray Lewis, but I don't like to compare anybody to him. I don't think that's fair. Yes, we like him. He's a run-hit guy."
Meanwhile, Penn State's Paul Posluszny is the next gritty product of Linebacker U. to draw comparisons to legends like Jack Ham, Shane Conlan and LaVar Arrington.
The Butkus Award winner as a junior, Posluszny has recovered well from a major knee injury and caught on quickly as a 3-4 inside linebacker after three years of playing outside.
"I think he's got some versatility as an inside-outside linebacker," DeCosta said. "He came off that knee injury and began to get back to his old self by the end of last season. We really love his instincts, toughness, play-making ability and special-teams potential."
Michigan's David Harris, who had 96 tackles, 14 for losses as a three-down linebacker, is a potential second-round option who surprised scouts with his 4.59 speed.
"Football isn't all about speed," Harris told reporters at the scouting combine. "It's all about reaction time and how well you can read plays. I think I can do that pretty well."
The Ravens have had success with small-school linebackers, most notably Southern Illinois' Scott, who went undrafted, and Western Illinois' Ed Hartwell, a fourth-rounder in 2001.
Another potential middle-round sleeper is Hampton University's Justin Durant, who has 4.53 speed to chase down runners. He's the younger brother of former North Carolina quarterback Darian Durant, who was cut by Baltimore a few years ago during training camp.
"He's kind of flying low on the radar screen," DeCosta. "He's undersized, but makes a ton of tackles and is very explosive. As an inside linebacker, teams like him on the second day."
Another inside prospect earning solid reviews is Florida State's Buster Davis, a stout, hard-nosed 5-9, 240-pounder who led the Seminoles with 103 tackles last season.
"He's undersized, but he's a thumper," DeCosta said. "He's a good run stopper, a take-on guy who did really well at the Senior Bowl. He's tough."
NOTE: Washington State wide receiver Jason Hill visited the Ravens along with Missouri Southern offensive tackle Allan Barbre.
CHARTING THE INSIDE LINEBACKERS
Ole Miss' Patrick Willis represents the top linebacker regardless of classification in the draft with his blazing 4.37 speed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds along with his Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award hardware. With Willis off the chart early, here are a few inside linebackers prospects along with outside linebackers who could project inside in the NFL that could be of interest to the Baltimore Ravens:
THE ELITE
Player School Size Speed
1. Jon Beason Miami 6-0, 235 4.69
2. Paul Posluszny Penn State 6-1, 237 4.66
3. David Harris Michigan 6-2, 242 4.59
SECOND TIER
4. Buster Davis Florida State 5-9, 240 4.69
5. Justin Durant Hampton 6-1 230 4.53
6. Zak DeOssie Brown 6-4, 255 4.58
7. Brandon Siler Florida 6-1 241 4.63
8. Anthony Waters Clemson 6-2, 240 4.65
9. H.B. Blades Pittsburgh 5-10 236 4.76
10. Desmond Bishop Cal-Berkeley 6-1, 239, 4.82
SLEEPERS
1. Jon Abbate Wake Forest 5-9, 231 4.90 (injury)
2. Oscar Lua USC 6-1, 240 4.85
3. Pago Togafau Idaho State 5-11, 234 4.72
4. Chad Nkang Elon 5-11, 224 4.53
5. Korey Hall Boise State 6-0, 228 4.77
6. Mike Klobucher Ferris State 6-1, 250 4.9
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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