The rash of injuries in 2017 hit the whole team hard, but possibly none more extremely than the offensive line. The Ravens lost a potential starter at Guard in Alex Lewis during the preseason, they lost a promising rookie who might’ve challenged at Guard or Center in Nico Siragusa before camp even really started, and they lost their anchor RG Marshal Yanda in just the 2nd game of the season. However, surprisingly, by the end of the season, the offensive line was playing well enough to be a strength for the team. While this development was promising, that promise is tempered a bit with the developments in free agency. Fill-in starting Guard James Hurst was brought back on a significant contract, but the Ravens chose to part ways with starting RT Austin Howard, and they lost breakout Center Ryan Jensen on the largest contract for a Center in NFL history. So, how will Offensive Line coach Joe D’Allesandris (and let’s face it, Greg Roman has his hands firmly on this OL as well) put together a line to meet or exceed what the 2017 OL did?
There are two spots which are locked in, obviously. Marshal Yanda is expected to be back and fully healthy when camp rolls around, though his age is obviously something to consider, as he is tied with Eric Weddle for 3rd most years in the NFL on the Ravens roster with 12. While there’s no sign of him declining due to age, his health could become a trickier thing to depend on. Also locked in is Ronnie Stanley at Left Tackle. While not quite playing at a Pro Bowl level, he has developed into a dependable and strong option at Left Tackle, and assuming his play continues at this level, should be up for an extension in the next year or two.
Outside of those two spots however, the picture gets hazy. John Harbaugh offered a glimpse at the plan while at the NFL Owners’ meeting, saying that Matt Skura has the first shot to start at Center, while he envisions Alex Lewis returning to Left Guard and James Hurst moving to Right Tackle. While the comments certainly aren’t binding and the battles are far from over, it paints a picture of what the OL might look like when training camp opens in 2018, and certainly is a read on what Harbaugh feels his best offensive line would be right now
James Hurst moving to Right Tackle is a bit of a roll of the dice, to us outside fans at least. Hurst has had a few, less favorable, opportunities at Left Tackle, but largely has been absent the Right Tackle spot in his NFL career. In 2014, as a rookie, he filled in at LT for Eugene Monroe. In 2015 and 2016, he mostly filled in at LT and OG. In 2017, he appeared to be the first man up at RT during minicamps, but the injuries to Nico Siragusa and Alex Lewis moved him to the Left Guard spot, where he had his breakout season in 2017. With a new $4+ million APY free agent contract, Hurst is being paid as a starter. So if the Right Tackle experiment isn’t going well, will the Ravens shift him back to Guard and move Lewis to RT or backup? Or will the Ravens be paying a swing OL backup such a large amount of money?
Alex Lewis at Left Guard seems to be a bit of a natural call. While he lost his whole sophomore season to injury, Lewis seemed to play well his rookie year at the Left Guard spot, and has never played RT at the NFL level. But, the Ravens are basing their decision to play Lewis at LG on his rookie season alone, as he was injured most of the 2017 preseason before his season ended. It’s hard to tell if he will come back at the same level he played in 2016, or if he will need time to adjust and learn. Meanwhile, just a few spots over on the OL is a player who seemed to excel at the Left Guard spot in 2017 in James Hurst.
At Center, Matt Skura is a very interesting call. True, Skura was the primary competition to Ryan Jensen in 2017’s battle to determine the starting Center, which Ryan Jensen won. His impressive wingspan was a big reason why he had a floating chance of winning the job last year. However, he didn’t win the job, and he also didn’t make the Ravens 53-man roster to begin the season, ending up on the Practice Squad. It took the injury to Marshal Yanda and the ineffectiveness of Tony Bergstrom in relief to lead Skura to not only a roster spot, but also a starting spot at RG. To be fair to Skura though, his play at RG was comparable to James Hurst’s play at LG. But, that was Guard, not Center. Skura’s play at Center during the Preseason was not especially noteworthy, but after reviewing Ken McKusick’s fantastic notes (I will happily give a plug there), it seems like by Week 2 of the preseason, the Ravens had basically all but locked in Jensen at Center, only giving Skura snaps at Guard. It will certainly be a bigger challenge for Skura to shift over and take on the mammoth DTs of the AFC North (Though Cleveland made that job slightly easier by trading Danny Shelton out of the division).
The theme of these moves, as I re-read my own musings, is that the Ravens are going to shift some players around from 2017. Hurst is going to move off the LG spot that earned him that contract, and Skura is shifting back from Guard (where he essentially played from Week 2 of the preseason onward) to Center. Lewis isn’t being shifted, but he’s the only one of the three returning from injury. The popular fan theory/hypothetical was to keep Hurst at LG, draft a Tackle who is more likely to compete than Hurst and Lewis at RT, and see if Siragusa or Skura emerges as a clear winner at Center. Obviously, Harbaugh’s vision is a bit different, and given the team’s recent failure to get into the postseason, his statements were met with a lot of scrutiny.
With all this said, my take is to remember that it’s only March. There’s still the draft, there’s still post-draft Free Agency, there’s still camp battles and preseason games to go. Lots can change between now, when Harbaugh is slating a starting OL of Stanley-Lewis-Skura-Yanda-Hurst, and Week 1. Austin Howard wasn’t brought in by the Ravens until August of 2017. Similarly, Bryant McKinnie wasn’t brought in by Ravens until late summer several years ago, and he became a several year starter for the team. So changes before, during, or even after Training Camp are certainly precedent. Also, Harbaugh doesn’t really have a lot of alternatives when someone asks him who his starting LG, C, or RT are. Nico Siragusa could well win the Center battle with a strong offseason, but he’s also never played a snap in any NFL game, regular or preseason. It’s not plausible to give him the job off literally nothing. As for the Left Guard/Right Tackle moves, Lewis and Hurst may yet both battle at Left Guard, but it’s easier to note that Hurst does have more experience at Tackle than Lewis, though that experience might be lacking. It’s also worth saying that sometimes, it just takes a player time to develop. Adalius Thomas was “just a special teamer” for years, until in 2004, he turned it on as a defensive starter and began racking up sacks. So, maybe the Ravens coaches see Right Tackle potential in Hurst and want to let him develop there. Or, maybe they feel it’s likely they will draft a tackle who will be serious competition to Hurst. In all cases, there’s still a lot of road left to trudge.
So, buckle up Ravens fans. We’re back on the Offensive Line rollercoaster for another year!