OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Expectations were high for Kamalei Correa when the Ravens selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.
With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off respective Achilles tendon injuries and veterans Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw no longer on the roster, Correa looked like a good bet at this time a year ago to see meaningful action as a rookie in the Baltimore defense. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case as he would play only 48 defensive snaps and struggled to grasp the Ravens system.
In an impressive draft class that produced three first-year starters in Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis, and Tavon Young, Correa became an afterthought with former undrafted free agent Zach Orr emerging to take Smith’s inside linebacker position and leading the Ravens in tackles after the two had competed for the starting job in the spring and early summer. A year later, Orr’s unfortunate retirement due to a rare congenital spine condition has opened the door for Correa to win a starting spot.
“I learned a lot. The NFL is not like college football, and that was hard,” Correa said. “My playbook expanded. I didn’t really play special teams in college, so that was tough. I think it was just a huge learning year. Year 1 and Year 2 is such a big difference. I feel like in Year 2, you know what to expect, you know what is coming, you know your playbook a little more.
“In actuality, it really allows you to play faster. When you play faster, you start making plays, and when you start making plays, you are going to stay on the field.”
Correa was considered by most to be an edge defender with pass-rushing ability following his standout career at Boise State, but the Ravens elected to cross-train the rookie at all four linebacker positions. That’s hardly an uncommon practice with teams limited to 46-man rosters on game days, but Correa struggled to learn the many layers of the defense and didn’t embrace playing special teams, causing his plunge down the depth chart after initially turning heads in spring workouts.
He saw very limited action at outside linebacker last year, but the organization now views the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Correa’s best fit at inside linebacker. Despite checking off a number of other boxes with notable additions to the defense this offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome has not added a veteran inside linebacker, a show of faith that Correa can handle Orr’s old weak-side inside linebacker job.
The reviews for the start of the 23-year-old’s second NFL season have been favorable.
“We have kind of honed him into one spot, and he is really working hard at that and really learning that spot,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s been moving around great. You can never know about the running game too much in [organized team activities] and minicamp because you don’t have pads on. You have to be really careful and not be banging people.
“As far as where he fits and knowing his responsibilities and assignments and all that kind of stuff, I am very, very pleased with him at this point.”
Correa still leans on veterans C.J. Mosley and Albert McClellan to help refine his knowledge of coverage concepts and understanding where his help is coming from within the defense, but the young linebacker says he feels more like himself and is having more fun this season after struggling to find his way a year ago. Though acknowledging that trying to learn so many positions a year ago probably hurt his development, he placed the blame solely on his shoulders for not living up to expectations as a rookie.
And he believes the trials of his rookie season will only make him a better player in the long run.
“They picked me for a reason. I am here, I can do it. So, why not be me?” Correa said. “I just started to go to work, I put my best foot forward, I am letting the cards fall out on the table as it is, and I let them make the calls up there on who is playing. I just have to do my job and make plays.”