The mood and composition of the Ravens' offensive line have undergone major changes after a frustrating season.
Pass rushers often invaded the pocket last year, either knocking quarterback Joe Flacco to the ground or harassing him into rushed throws as he threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions.
The running game was stonewalled much of the season. The Ravens averaged just 3.1 yards per carry as running back Ray Rice struggled with injuries and rarely had holes to run through.
But after a season in which Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times and the Ravens rushed for a franchise-record low 1,328 yards and finished 30th in rushing offense, the Ravens have revamped their offensive line.
Besides hiring a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak, who emphasizes zone-blocking schemes and running the football, the Ravens retained left tackle Eugene Monroe with a $37.5 million contract, traded for new starting center Jeremy Zuttah and are giving Rick Wagner the first crack at right tackle. As the Ravens concluded their mandatory minicamp Thursday, there was a lot of optimism surrounding the new-look offensive line.
"Last year is done and over with," said guard Marshal Yanda, the lone member of the offensive line to make the Pro Bowl last season. "We've got a new offensive coordinator, new personnel, new guys. We're moving forward with the group that we've got. I like what we see. I like that we're all working hard.
"Good or bad, you've got to move on. Two years ago was the Super Bowl. Last year, we didn't do as well. Either way, we're moving on. We're looking forward to this year and just getting it right this year, no doubt about it."
Right tackle is the most uncertain spot.
Drafted in the fifth round last year out of Wisconsin, Wagner is the current front-runner in a competition with converted center-guard Ryan Jensen.
"Ricky, I don't want to say he's a surprise, because I expected him to play well," Kubiak said. "I think we put a lot on his plate early walking in here as a starter, new scheme and those types of thing. He has responded and hasn't missed a rep. I've been very pleased with Ricky."
Wagner had a rough initiation into the NFL last season.
When right tackle Michael Oher, who left the Ravens in March when he signed a $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans, sprained his ankle during a season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, Wagner was forced into the game, his first in the league. He was overmatched, allowing three sacks to veteran Broncos outside linebacker Shaun Phillips.
"It was a big game, kind of getting thrown in there, but those are experiences that are very valuable because they don't come along that much," Wagner said. "Definitely humbling, but the next day, I wanted to get back there and get motivated again. ... The biggest jump from college to the NFL is just the speed, and there's nothing you can really do except get out there and get on the field."
Wagner is noticeably leaner than he was as a rookie a year ago. With better footwork, he looks comfortable lining up with the starting offense.
"He definitely shows the tools that he can be a starter for us, and he's definitely going to compete for that spot," Yanda said. "He's a young guy, so I try to help him. I'm relaying the call to him all the time. I've played tackle before, so I know a little bit of the stuff where it makes it a little easier for him. I just try to give him the call, so he can do his job easier and not worry about the call so much and just play football."
The Ravens haven't signed a veteran offensive tackle with starting experience this offseason, giving Wagner a chance to establish himself.
"It's a great opportunity," Wagner said. "I feel very comfortable. .. I want to be a consistent blocker, grinding and doing my job."
Although Wagner arguably has the most to prove, the entire line is under pressure to improve as the Ravens attempt to upgrade the 29th-ranked offense in the NFL.
The Ravens traded their 2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to acquire Zuttah, who was signed to a five-year, $18 million contract in March as the replacement for center Gino Gradkowski.
Zuttah makes the line calls and blocking adjustments and is required to be one of the most knowledgeable players on the offense. Playing center for Kubiak is a demanding job.
"It's pretty important," Zuttah said. "You've got to learn ahead of the curve. ... I've run the same type of plays, probably more leaning on the type of plays Coach Kubiak's calling now. We mix it up more.
"I think it gives me a chance to perfect that craft and run the same type over and over again. I've watched a lot of Houston film over the years, and I've seen the way they run it, so I'm pretty familiar with it."
The Ravens' biggest investment in their line over the past year was in Monroe, who signed a contract in March that included $17 million guaranteed.
Monroe was the highest-graded Ravens offensive lineman last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Like Yanda, he's determined to put last season behind him.
"Honestly, what happened last year doesn't matter," Monroe said. "It's a new year; everyone has the same opportunity to make a statement."
Mobile at 6 feet 5, 306 pounds, Monroe relishes how Kubiak's system provides opportunities for him to get downfield and block in space.
"Last year, we were lining up in a lot of one-back stuff, a lot of empty stuff, tossing the ball out there, coming out throwing on first down," Monroe said. "I don't think that's the history with Gary. I think he wants to run the ball a little bit, which would be fun.
"We've got to run the ball to win. I believe that we'll do a good job at that."
One of the reasons the Ravens are encouraged about the prospects of their line is the progress left guard Kelechi Osemele has made since undergoing season-ending back surgery in November.
The 6-5, 330-pound Osemele had a promising rookie year during the Ravens' Super Bowl-winning year, but was unable to build on that performance last season because of a herniated disk. Osemele has practiced all spring without restrictions or setbacks and appears quick and powerful.
"Very pleased with Kelechi," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Very pleased with everything he's done. If Kelechi is as good as he looks in shorts, he's going to look even better in pads."
Although the offensive line, challenged in practice all week by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, has so far held up fine, the true tests of whether the line is better will come this fall.
"I like the offensive line," Harbaugh said. "From what you can see, they're in sync, footwork looks good, assignments look very good. We'll find out when the pads come on."
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