Brian Baldinger of NFL Network and Fox Sports says inside linebacker is the most obvious position of need for the Ravens ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft, but cautions it can be difficult to evaluate linebackers at the college level and wonders if there’s a certain defensive tackle Baltimore would consider moving up for.
Just three inside linebackers are currently on the Ravens’ roster: L.J. Fort, Chris Board and Otaro Alaka. Fort played in 12 games for Baltimore last year, making 35 tackles. He played in 26 percent of the team’s defensive snaps for the season. Board played in all 16 games, but mostly contributed on special teams and played just 7 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Alaka spent most of the year on injured reserve.
The Ravens reportedly agreed to a deal with linebacker Jake Ryan as well, but that deal has not yet been announced.
Baldinger thinks Baltimore’s most pressing need is to find a more permanent solution at the position, especially given the team’s history at the position with the likes of Ray Lewis (1996-2012) and C.J. Mosley (2014-2018).
“I think sometimes you’ve got to go in the first round to find an elite player at that position,” Baldinger said on Glenn Clark Radio April 20. “And as multiple as [Don Martindale] is as the defensive coordinator — and he’s as multiple as anyone in this business — it’s good to have a linebacker that can do everything: blitz, cover, plug the run, chase sideline to sideline. For most of the Ravens’ history, they’ve had two guys that can do that and be the quarterback of the defense, and I think they really need that position filled right now.”
The obvious candidates at inside linebacker for the Ravens with the No. 28 pick are Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen. The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Murray totaled 325 tackles (36.5 for loss) and 9.5 sacks during his three-year career at Oklahoma. The 6-foot, 229-pound Queen was a late bloomer, recording 85 of his 131 tackles, three of his four sacks and his only interception during his junior year in 2019.
But what makes inside linebacker prospects stand out in today’s game is their ability to cover running backs and tight ends. Both can really run — Queen ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, while Murray ran a 4.52 — but Baldinger says it’s hard to get a read on how well a linebacker can cover in college.
Baldinger explained college offenses tend to utilize a lot of four-receiver sets and usually don’t feature running backs who catch a lot of passes, which means an inside linebacker is not covering a back one-on-one out of the backfield to nearly the degree he would at the next level. Baldinger also mentioned that the tempo of college offenses, particularly in the Big 12, make it difficult to see what kind of leader a linebacker is.
“If you’re playing Oklahoma State or if you’re playing TCU or Texas Tech, you’re playing teams that are running offensive plays every 16, 17, 18 seconds,” Baldinger said. “So you’re not huddling up, you’re not the captain. You’re just lining up and just trying to follow the ball right now.”
Even if Queen is generally thought to be better in coverage than Murray, Baldinger says it’s hard to come to a firm conclusion.
“For Kenneth Murray, you’re just not going to find a lot of games where he’s in coverage,” Baldinger said. “But it’s not to say he can’t do it. I think he can do it, but it’s not something he had to do. Queen did a little bit more of it because they’re a little bit more geared toward some pro-style offenses in the SEC than they are in the Big 12.”
But Baldinger couldn’t help but wonder if the Ravens stray away from their perceived needs and trade up to draft a player they love, even at a position where they have some depth. Baldinger said the Ravens love to stock up for the future along the offensive and defensive lines, and he identified South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw as a potential option.
The 6-foot-5, 324-pound Kinlaw, considered one of the top defensive players in the draft, racked up 82 tackles and 10 sacks for the Gamecocks from 2017-2019. PressBox’s Ken Zalis predicted Kinlaw would go No. 9 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in his latest mock draft, but knee tendinitis cut his Senior Bowl week short and kept him from working out at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Ravens have two picks in the second, third and fourth rounds, which figures to help them should try to move up.
“If a Javon Kinlaw somehow got to No. 20, the Ravens have a lot of ammunition here in the third and fourth rounds,” Baldinger said. “I mean, would they move up to get a guy like Javon Kinlaw that is just a man-child inside? They might be drafting the next Haloti Ngata if he was still around. I’m not going to say anybody’s Ngata at this point, but he has that type of physical prowess about him.”
For more from Baldinger, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics