The Baltimore Ravens will officially start the defense of their Super Bowl championship in about four months. This week, however, the next chapter for the Ravens' defense truly began.
In the same year Baltimore said goodbye to two future Hall of Fame players in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Ravens used their first two draft picks on Florida safety Matt Elam and Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown.
Coincidence? Not exactly. Four days after the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, general manager Ozzie Newsome told reporters that it was a priority to upgrade the middle of the defense.
That was the focus of free agency, when Baltimore signed defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears along with safety Michael Huff. And that was the focus of this year's draft, where Baltimore took a playmaking safety in the first round and an instinctive yet undersized inside linebacker in the second. This will sound eerily familiar, but the Ravens aren't expecting Elam and Brown to be the next Reed and Lewis.
Let's be honest, the Ravens' defense wasn't the same dominating and disruptive group even with Reed and Lewis last season. The unit ranked 17th in yards allowed (350.9 per game) in 2012, its lowest ranking since 2002, when it was 22nd. Teams ran at will at times against the Ravens. Baltimore lost games in December to backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins. Yes, the Ravens finished as a championship defense. No one would call it an elite one, or even a consistent one.
It was time for the Ravens to make major changes on a defense steeped in tradition and pride. There is already an established foundation in linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb. The next wave is Elam and Brown.
These aren't two prospects that the Ravens had to settle on at the bottom of the round. These are two players the Ravens coveted, and those are their words and not mine. That's a major statement coming from an organization that has found 15 Pro Bowl players in 17 drafts.
When Newsome called Elam to tell him that the Ravens were picking him, he gave him a quick history test, asking Elam about the player the Ravens lost to the Houston Texans. It was, of course, Reed.
“Now what player is going to be able to come in and line up in our secondary and play the game like an All-Pro player?" Newsome asked Elam, according to the team's official website. “Matt Elam? OK, that’s what I wanted to hear.”
Elam is the first safety selected by the Ravens in the first round since they took Reed in 2002. The significance was not lost on Elam, whose knack for making clutch plays is reminiscent of Reed coming out of college.
"After a great player like Ed Reed was back there before, that’s a lot of big shoes to fill," Elam said, "but I am just coming in and trying to do all I can and help win championships.”
The Ravens chose Elam over inside linebackers Manti Te'o and Kevin Minter because he was the higher-rated player on their board. That led to the Ravens making an aggressive move, trading three picks -- ones in the second (62nd overall), fifth (165th) and sixth rounds (199th) -- to slide up six spots in the second round.
Brown, who is expected to compete against Rolando McClain for a starting job, is considered one of the best read-and-react linebackers in this draft. He has the instincts to diagnose a play as soon as the ball is snapped. The biggest knock on Brown is his size. He's listed at 228 pounds, which is just eight pounds heavier than when an equally undersized linebacker named Ray Lewis was drafted by Baltimore in 1996.
"It’s an honor to be even mentioned in the same sentence with him," Brown said after being drafted Friday night. "I have a lot of respect for Ray, not only the player that he is, but the person of which he projects himself to be. He’s truly had an impact on the game and also many people throughout the game. That’s what I was thinking what I appreciate about him the most.”
While the timing of this draft will lead many to countless comparisons to Lewis and Reed, it's unfair to put that weight on two rookies. There is no one who is going to fill the shoes of Lewis and Reed. The Ravens just hope Elam and Brown can help the franchise along the same successful path. The next chapter of the Ravens defense has begun.