Next man up – again – for Ravens
Courtney Upshaw knows the perception from the outside is that Terrell Suggs’ injury puts Upshaw on the fast track to immediate playing time — and a key role — with the Baltimore Ravens this fall.
But Upshaw, a surprise second-round selection, maintains that isn’t the case. Speaking at the NFL Rookie Symposium late last month, he said he never expected to have anything handed to him.
He planned on being ready to play, anyway.
“Terrell’s injury definitely does not change anything,” Upshaw said. “Even if he was healthy and in every practice I still would have to come in and compete. Those guys who were already there, they’re not gonna come in and let me just show up and take a job. I can’t just show up and say I’m ready and walk in to a job.
“Sergio Kindle looks great. Chavis Williams, Paul Kruger, those guys have been in the system and they’re hungry. I have to compete every single day.”
Upshaw (6-2, 272) still isn’t sure why he wasn’t picked in the first round of the NFL Draft last spring, but he knows he landed in a good spot with the Ravens just three picks into the second round. In Upshaw, the Ravens landed a guy who’s a little like Suggs — a gifted pass-rusher with experience at both linebacker and defensive end. In fact, some saw Upshaw as a natural fit to replace Jarrett Johnson, also a former Alabama star, in the Ravens’ base defense opposite Suggs after Johnson went to the Chargers via free agency.
Suggs suffered a torn Achilles a few weeks after the draft, and though he’s promised to return at some point this season, his absence leaves the Ravens without one of the game’s most feared pass rushers, at least temporarily. Upshaw had 17.5 sacks in his college career and 9.5 last fall, the most by an Alabama player in a season in 20 years.
The Ravens figure that training camp will bring an interesting competition for jobs on the edge, with the hope that Suggs’ eventual return will make a strong group stronger.
Kruger, who’s entering his fourth NFL season, had a career-best 5.5 sacks last season in a mostly passing-down role. A highly-touted second-round pick in 2010, Kindle has just two games experience in two years after suffering a non-football head injury before his rookie season. Williams — yet another former Alabama player — played in five games as an undrafted rookie last season.
Whether it’s Johnson’s old role, picking up the slack for Suggs or maybe a combination of both, Upshaw says he’s honored just to have the opportunity to be an immediate contributor.
“I’m very blessed, very happy I fell into this predicament,” Upshaw said. “I was disappointed in the draft, not being a first-rounder, but at the end of the day I landed in a great spot. Why it happened, I don’t know.
“I just enjoy being the with the Ravens. The veterans there are unbelievable. It’s a great atmosphere, starting with Ozzie (Newsome), the coaches, Ray Lewis, everybody.”
Upshaw said he never hid his desire to be selected by Newsome, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, the Ravens’ general manager and a proud Alabama alum.
“I had seen Ozzie a few times but never met him until the draft process,” he said. “Being from Alabama, you get a lot of Ozzie.
“Honestly me and my family talked about it and prayed about it but we kind of thought it would be Baltimore once the second round (started). A lot of teams were calling. We prayed and hoped it would be Baltimore.
“We have goals and they start with getting back to that (AFC) championship game. I’m used to that. I’m just really blessed to be a Raven.”
A quick glance at other defensive rookies being counted on for immediate production in the AFC North this fall…
Devon Still, DT, Bengals – One of the most dominant interior linemen in college football last fall, Still missed much of the Bengals’ spring work due to a back issue but comes in to training camp with high expectations. The Bengals need first-round corner Dre Kirkpatrick to be ready immediately, but also saw Still as a second-round steal who can fortify a defensive line rotation that was shortened by free-agency losses. He might not be a Day One starter, but he’ll be an important piece if the Bengals are to meet high expectations this season.
Sean Spence, LB, Steelers – An athletic third-rounder, Spence was issued the No. 51 that used to belong to James Farrior. That might or might not say something about the team’s expectations for Spence, but it’s clear the Steelers needed an influx of youth at the position and think Spence has the instincts — and, now, the environment — to shed the label of undersized linebacker and become a longtime producer for a team with a rich history of developing linebackers.
James Michael-Johnson, LB, Browns – The Browns desperately needed an upgrade in both depth and athleticism at the linebacker position and might have picked up a fourth-round steal in Johnson. He could get an immediate call with veteran outside linebacker Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension to start the season, but in an ideal situation he’ll learn from Fujita and D’Qwell Jackson, contribute on special teams and in nickel packages and grow into a permanent role. It’s a big leap from the WAC to the AFC North, but Johnson has made a solid first impression with the Browns.