The Ravens begin life without Lewis in Thursday's season opener in Denver, and the transition has been smoother than expected because of the play of Daryl Smith.
The leading tackler in Jacksonville Jaguars history, Smith was the Ravens' best defensive player this summer, showing great awareness and athleticism. Coach John Harbaugh has already called Smith "the quarterback" of the defense and described him as "one of the most underrated defensive players in football over the last eight [or] nine years."
Even though he has admirably filled Lewis' shoes so far on the field, Smith doesn't want to talk about it.
Asked whether he realizes the magnitude of replacing one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, Smith said, “No, I’m not really getting into that question. My focus [is to] learn the defense and help the younger guys. There’s a standard that is set here. We don’t want to be the group of guys that lets that down. It’s just all about coming in, putting that work in and living up to that standard.”
The Ravens were fortunate that pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil became a free agent over a fax fiasco. But the real stroke of luck was landing Smith.
Baltimore might not have Smith right now if not for an abrupt retirement. The Ravens' first attempt to replace Lewis was signing Rolando McClain, who decided to quit football 33 days after joining the Ravens.
The Ravens had monitored Smith (who missed most of 2012 with a sports hernia) throughout free agency, but they didn't want to bring him in until after June 1. By that time, signing Smith wouldn't count against their getting a compensatory pick in the 2014 draft.
So, on June 5, the day the Ravens visited the White House, they signed Smith to a one-year contract.
"He really does fit in," Harbaugh said. "Daryl is a pro. I’d say he is a consummate pro in a lot of ways. He doesn’t say a lot because he’s just about business."
A quiet middle linebacker is definitely a departure from Lewis, and there are going to be questions about how the Ravens replace Lewis' leadership on the field. And no one believes Smith will ever be held in the same regard as Lewis. But the Ravens are replacing a player at the end of his 17-year career, not one who was in the prime of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. In terms of statistics, Smith measures up to Lewis quite well.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Jaguars' defense averaged fewer yards per play and per pass with Smith on the field over the past two years than the Ravens did with Lewis. The Jaguars and Ravens also averaged the same amount of rushing yards allowed per play with each on the field. The difference is Lewis had three Pro Bowl teammates: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Smith had no Pro Bowl players around him.
"Ray is going to be known as probably the greatest linebacker to play this game," Smith said. "You really can’t replace that. Everything he did, everything he meant to this organization … [I’m excited to] just come in and put in work, and I’m hoping to be a part of the team’s success.”