The Ravens have prioritized upgrading their offensive line this offseason and they apparently see center as one position where they can do that. However, their options to replace Jeremy Zuttah seem to be limited.
In a move that appears to be more about improving performance at the position than saving money, the Ravens traded Zuttah and their 2017 sixth-round pick (198 overall) to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for the 49ers’ sixth-round pick (186 overall). In dealing their starting center of the past three seasons, the Ravens created $2.4 million in salary cap space and moved up 12 draft spots in the sixth round.
It was widely reported early Wednesday that the Ravens were planning to cut the 30-year-old, a move that was confirmed by multiple sources. The decision was reached after the Ravens had failed in recent days to find a trade partner. However, when word of his pending release became public, the 49ers stepped forward and a deal was made.
The move opens a second hole on the starting offensive line — right tackle Rick Wagner signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency —and continues the Ravens’ offseason roster shakeup. Since the 2016 season ended, the Ravens lost wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr, the team’s leader in tackles, to retirement. They lost fullback Kyle Juszczyk, Wagner, right guard Vladimir Ducasse and starting defensive end Lawrence Guy in free agency.
They have cut rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil and defensive backs Lardarius Webb, Shareece Wright and Kendrick Lewis, and withdrew the original-round restricted free agent tenders on defensive backs Marqueston Huff and Jumal Rolle.
Several of the moves were a result of the Ravens, who’ve been uncharacteristically busy in the first week of free agency, needing to free up salary cap space to address their myriad needs. Zuttah’s salary cap number was manageable for a starting center, an indication that he was jettisoned because the Ravens are seeking an upgrade at the position.
Heading into the free-agent period, Zuttah’s $4.6 million salary cap hit for 2017 was the 12th highest on the Ravens, and it ranked 11th among NFL centers. However, Zuttah struggled the past two seasons with both injuries and inconsistency, and the Ravens want to get more athletic and physical up front in between guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda.
Although the Ravens created $2.4 million of salary cap space with the trade, they also incurred $2.21 million of “dead money” on their cap. Trading Zuttah has the same cap effect on the Ravens had they released him.
The question is “Who will replace him?” The top internal candidate is John Urschel, a 2014 fifth-round pick who has started 13 games over the past three seasons. Urschel’s natural position is guard, but he did step in and start seven games in 2015 after Zuttah was injured.
Ryan Jensen, a Raven since 2014, also has experience at center, although he was behind Urschel on the depth chart last season. The Ravens also signed former Duke center Matt Skura as an undrafted free agent last year, and he spent the 2016 season on the practice squad.
There are no obvious upgrades for Zuttah available on the free-agent market. Nick Mangold, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who was cut by the New York Jets late last month, is considered the best center remaining on the open market. However, there are concerns about his age (33) and recent injury history, and the Ravens haven’t expressed much interest in him to this point.
Free agent John Sullivan — a longtime Minnesota Viking who most recently played for the Washington Redskins — has 94 career starts at center on his resume, but he’s probably better suited as a backup at this stage of his career.
As for the draft, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein and Louisiana State’s Ethan Pocic are considered the best centers in the class. However, it’s not an especially deep or highly regarded center class.
The Ravens hope their next center will limit the amount of inside penetration on quarterback Joe Flacco and help a running game that has fallen on hard times. The Ravens finished 28th in the league in rushing yards per game (91.4) last season and 26th in that same category (92.4) in 2015.
During news conferences after the season, both general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh mentioned improved offensive line play as one of the biggest keys to Flacco and the offense being more productive.
With Ronnie Stanley entrenched at left tackle and Lewis and Yanda at the two guard spots, the two obvious question marks along the offensive line were center and right tackle, where the Ravens watched three-year starter Wagner depart in free agency.
The Ravens acquired Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the 2014 season for a 2015 fifth-round draft pick. He started all 16 games in 2014, but played in just nine games the following year after he tore his pectoral muscle.
Zuttah played in all 16 games this past season, fighting through myriad injuries and even being selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team as an injury replacement. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 13th best center last year. His toughness and accountability made him a popular teammate, but Zuttah struggled at times, especially against big nose tackles.
NOTES: Orr got the Ravens’ highest bonus in the league’s performance-based pay program. The former undrafted free agent, who retired in January after leading the team in tackles due to a spinal condition, received a $406,939.99 bonus. Among the other top Ravens bonuses received were by cornerback Tavon Young ($278,224.71), Juszczyk ($222,364.419), Ducasse ($205.554.90) and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith ($182,036.08). … The Ravens’ new deal with safety/special teams standout Anthony Levine Sr. was officially filed with the NFL Players Association. Levine signed a three-year, $4.2 million deal that includes $1.3 million guaranteed and a max value of $5.4 million.