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Ray Lewis to retire: J.J. Stokes, draft picks and what could have been

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Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced he will retire after this season. Lewis was drafted with what was originally the 49ers first round pick. We look at what could have been.

Rob Carr

Earlier today, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis announced this will be his last season. Lewis dealt with injuries this season, but will be back for the playoffs, looking to go out on top.

Lewis was drafted back in 1996, and for those that are not aware, or have chosen to forget, that draft pick originally belonged to the San Francisco 49ers. The year before, the 49ers worked out a deal with the then Cleveland Browns to move up in the 1995 NFL Draft. The 49ers were interested in J.J. Stokes, and decided to give up their first, third and fourth picks in the 1995 Draft, along with their first round pick in 1996, to move up and grab Stokes with the No. 10 overall pick.

A year later, the Cleveland Browns had moved to Baltimore, and the Ravens used pick No. 26 in the 1996 NFL Draft on Ray Lewis. That pick was the one acquired the year before from the 49ers.

It is generally hard to look at hypotheticals and what could have been in the NFL Draft, particularly when you start speculating between seasons. After all, if the 49ers don't draft J.J. Stokes, do they necessarily finish with the same pick. If they don't draft Stokes, what need do they instead address?

And yet, it can still be fun to consider "What if?" without getting too bogged down in the details. In this case, if the 49ers did not select Stokes, and instead retain the 1996 first round, you could make a basic argument that Ray Lewis would have been a player the 49ers would have strongly considered. In 1995, Ken Norton was the team's middle linebacker and leading tackler. The team's two other linebackers in their 4-3 were Lee Woodall and Gary Plummer. In 1996, Norton, Woodall and Plummer filled similar roles, with Norton again leading the team in tackles. In 1997, the 49ers swapped Norton and Plummer. Norton would stick with the 49ers through 2000, before retiring at the age of 34.

Norton was 30-years old heading into the 1996 season, and coming off an All-Pro season. I suppose that would be reason not to draft a young Ray Lewis, but if the team was starting to look ahead, maybe they make the move. It's always interesting to consider alternate realities, and that would have been quite the reality had the 49ers been able to decided to draft Ray Lewis in 1996.