Three weeks into free agency, the Ravens have retained starting linebacker Jameel McClain, added to their defensive back depth and upgraded their special teams. But one of their glaring offseason needs remains virtually untouched.
"We have to upgrade the offensive line," Ravens coach John Harbaugh saud during the owners meetings Tuesday at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. "I don't even know if we have a full complement of linemen to be on our 53-man roster right now."
The Ravens did re-sign veteran center Matt Birk, but they have yet to replace Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs, who signed with the New Orleans Saints a couple of days into free agency. Jah Reid, primarily a right tackle who played very little during his rookie campaign, currently sits atop the left guard depth chart.
Birk, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher are returning starters from a group that Harbaugh admitted had "real issues" at times, particularly when Grubbs missed an extended stretch with a toe injury.
Behind them, the only other linemen on the Ravens' roster are Reid, guard Howard Barbieri, tackle Ramon Harewood and centers Cecil Newton and Justin Boren. None have extensive NFL experience.
"We don't have our five starters set. We have guys where [you say], 'Can they play a position or not?' We're talking about Jah. Can he play left guard? So we have to get better there just for the fact that we don't really have the numbers there right now," Harbaugh said. "The thing I've learned over the years, it starts with the offensive line on offense. The quarterback is obviously critically important but if you don't have an offensive line, you can forget about it."
Harbaugh promised that team officials will be "turning over every stone" to try to bolster the unit. They are still planning on signing a veteran guard to compete with Reid, but most of their free-agent options are underwhelming. Jake Scott (Tennessee Titans), Bobbie Williams (Cincinnati Bengals) and Kyle Kosier (Dallas Cowboys) are three of the more accomplished options. However, the Ravens don't have a whole lot of salary cap space to accommodate a veteran.
"We still have a little bit of room," Harbaugh said. "Off the top of my head, my math says we've got a few dollars left so we can do something. If we need to do some things we can be creative."
While the Ravens obviously value adding some experience to the offensive line, they also still have the draft to fill holes. They have been linked with their 29th overall pick to Wisconsin center Peter Konz, who can also play guard. Harbaugh said that he doesn't think it's a deep draft class for offensive linemen, but there are several quality tackles who could be available to them with their first couple of picks.
The Ravens lack a long-term answer at left tackle. McKinnie is entering the final season on his contract and he's struggled with his conditioning. The Ravens met with him a couple of weeks ago to see where was at and team officials saw enough positive signs to pay him a required $500,000 roster bonus.
"He had done a good job. He'd been working in the offseason, he's training. He's in the same shape he was in when he left," Harbaugh said. "We want to improve that from now until the start of next season. It's going to be really important what he does between now and when the offseason program starts on through June that he gets in the kind of shape he needs to be in … It's not like he's a big, fat guy. He's a big guy. We still want him to be able to move a little better and get a little quicker."
Harbaugh also touched on a variety of other topics during the media session:
• Harbaugh abstains from asking general manager Ozzie Newsome and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty for regular updates about the contract negotiations with quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice and he doesn't feel that anything is imminent, but he said that he's gotten "positive vibes" about how negotiations are going.
Even if a deal doesn't get done with Rice, who got the franchise tag earlier this month, Harbaugh said that he doesn't expect the running back to hold out.
"I don't know what their strategy will be, if they feel like they even need a strategy. That kind of goes back to the agent more than the player. But Ray Rice is a man," Harbaugh said. "He loves football. He wants to be in there with his teammates. I'm hoping he'll be there from Day One. I would expect him to be there from Day One. But if he's not, I'm not going to hold it against him as a coach. We just need the best Ray Rice that's possible for the first game."
• With Ricky Williams' surprise retirement, the Ravens plan on giving second-year running backs — Anthony Allen and Damien Berry — every opportunity to play roles behind Rice. However, Harbaugh indicated that the team is still planning on adding some ball carriers to the mix.
"[Allen's] potentially a No. 1 if something happens. Every backup player is an injury away, a play away from being the guy," Harbaugh said. "We think a lot of him; we think a lot of Damien Berry. We think they're going to have very good seasons, but we've got to look at some insurance, too. We've got to have more than two running backs on our roster, so we'll add some guys."
Harbaugh confirmed that former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs is "definitely on the list," but the same holds true for the rest of the free-agent running back class. That group includes Joseph Addai, Jackie Battle, Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant and Cadillac Williams.
• Not long after one of his starting outside linebackers signed with the San Diego Chargers during the first week of free agency, Harbaugh popped in film of one of Jarret Johnson's potential replacements. And after watching every play that Paul Kruger participated in during his third NFL season, Harbaugh was even more convinced.
"I think Paul is probably the leading candidate for the [strong-side] linebacker job," Harbaugh said. "I could very definitely see him doing that. When we lost Jarret, I went back and watched all of Paul's tape. I watched every one of his plays from last year, just to try and get a feel just for whether or not we'd be comfortable with him in there. He did a nice job in coverage, he set the edge well. Obviously, he's a very good pass rusher. I believe Paul can do it. I think he will do it."
Kruger, a second-round pick in 2009 who played sparingly during his first two seasons, was used in passing situations this past year, and responded with 5 1/2 sacks after totaling only one coming into the 2011 campaign.
"He's committed to doing it," Harbaugh said. "It means everything to him. He wants to be that guy and he wants to do it as well or better than how it's been done for the Ravens. That's what you want out of one of your players."
NOTES: A day after Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said that he thinks about the team's AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots "mornings, afternoons and nights," Harbaugh said that the defeat will probably "stick with him" forever. … The Ravens are still looking for a kick returner and a pass rusher, and Harbaugh acknowledged that the draft is the most realistic avenue toward finding both. … Harbaugh reiterated that he expects Billy Cundiff to be the team's kicker in 2012, but the plan remains for the team to bring in some training camp competition for him … He also said that the Ravens are still in the market for another safety despite signing Sean Considine. … Harbaugh wouldn't rule out signing free-agent linebacker and special teams standout Isaiah Ekejiuba, who visited the team's facility last week and is trying to come back from shoulder surgery … Harbaugh again vehemently defended Flacco, saying that there is no doubt in his mind that he's going to win championships in the NFL. … Cornerback Cary Williams (hip) and wide receiver Torrey Smith (hernia) continue to progress after offseason surgeries. … The Ravens will have three open practices during training camp and two clinics for youth players. One of the practices will be at M&T Back Stadium, while Annapolis is the likely site of another.
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