ORLANDO, Fla. — The Ravens filled another of their primary offseason needs Sunday, acquiring starting center Jeremy Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a 2015 fifth-round draft pick.
Zuttah, who has played all three interior offensive line spots for the Buccaneers, is expected to play center for the Ravens after Gino Gradkowski struggled last season as a first-year starter.
The deal is pending a physical, though the Ravens and Zuttah have already reworked the player’s original four-year, $17.09 million contract that he signed with Tampa Bay in March 2012, and are signing him to a new long-term contract, according to sources. Zuttah’s salary cap figures are now lower than the original $4.5 million in 2014 and $4.25 million in 2015, sources said.
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“This can be an outstanding change for me,” Zuttah said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “It will be a great new start. I just want to win a championship. The Baltimore Ravens, just saying the name, it holds weight. When you say the team name, they have a very positive image and a great reputation. I'm very excited.”
Zuttah’s addition continues the Ravens’ focus on repairing their offensive line, which faltered badly last year as the team gained a franchise-low in rushing yards, and Joe Flacco was sacked more than all but one starting NFL quarterback last year.
“We said at the beginning of the offseason that we would be adding quality players to our line, and Jeremy fits that description,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement released by the team. Newsome was able to close the deal while at the NFL owners’ meetings, which officially begin here Monday at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes resort.
“We are getting a player who has started at both center and guard and played well at each position,” Newsome said. “We're excited to have him as a Raven and believe he can play a significant role for us.”
The Ravens re-signed Eugene Monroe on the first day of free agency to solidify the left-tackle spot. Zuttah, 27, is slotted to play center next to Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. Kelechi Osemele will play either left guard or right tackle, leaving the Ravens with one more vacancy to fill along the offensive line.
But finding a long-term answer at center has been a significant challenge for the Ravens following the retirement of Matt Birk after the 2012 season. Gradkowski, drafted in the fourth round in 2012, started all 16 games last season but graded out as the worst starting center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Acquired last offseason from the Indianapolis Colts for a seventh-round pick, A.Q. Shipley was beaten out by Gradkowski for the starting center job in training camp, though he did start nine games at left guard when Osemele was lost for the season with a back injury. Rookie center Ryan Jensen, drafted in the sixth round last season, was inactive for all 16 games after hurting his foot early in training camp.
Meanwhile, Zuttah started 46 of 48 games for the Buccaneers over the past three seasons, and 76 of 90 games in his six-year NFL career. Since being a third-round pick out of Rutgers in the 2008 draft, Zuttah has started 30 games at center, 41 at left guard and five at right guard.
“Smart, physical, athletic, those are the things that stand out about me when you turn the tape on,” Zuttah said. “I think center is a great position for me to play, take charge and lead and take control of things at the line.”
Zuttah, 6 feet 4 and 308 pounds, adds a little more size and athleticism to the interior of the Ravens’ offensive line, and he should be a great fit for what new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak likes to do with the run game. He graded out as the 22nd-ranked center in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and did not allow a sack all season.
However, he became expendable when the Buccaneers signed free-agent center Evan Dietrich-Smith, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Since the Buccaneers hired Jason Licht as their general manager and Lovie Smith as their head coach, they have cut starting offensive tackle Donald Penn, guard Davin Joseph and traded Zuttah.
“I had some good moments in Tampa and some not-so-good times, too,” Zuttah said. “I'm pretty sure everything I've been through has made me the player I am today. I'm not trying to prove anything to them. I have a lot of respect for the guys in the new regime. I sat down with them, and they seem like great guys. Unfortunately, their plans and my plans didn't exactly line up.”
Zuttah will have some instant familiarity with the Ravens' locker room. He played collegiately with Ravens running back Ray Rice, and grew up in Edison, N.J., where he became friends with Monroe, who was born in Plainfield, N.J.
“Playing with Ray again would be pretty cool,” Zuttah said. “He made me look good at times, and I made him look good at times. It will be fun, and hopefully we gain a lot of yards working together. Me and Eugene have been talking since high school recruiting stuff. Edison is the next town over from Plainfield.
“I've heard nothing but positive stuff about him and Marshal Yanda and the young guys they have on the line. It should be a great group. I can't wait to get to work with those guys.”