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Preston: Ravens' success rests on offensive line, return of healthy Marshal Yanda

Some of the best Ravens news of the offseason came without the usual fanfare of a top signing.

On April 11, right guard Marshal Yanda signed a one-year contract extension through the 2020 season, ending speculation that the potential Hall of Famer might retire and leave the offensive line with another gaping hole.

With his return, a suspect offensive line became at least average, and Yanda will be surrounded by several young players with solid potential.

“We have a lot of young guys that are hungry and that are working hard, and [new offensive coordinator] Greg [Roman] definitely has the entire playbook up, everything,” Yanda said. “It’s an exciting time, and guys are working really hard, and we’re just putting our best foot forward. We don’t know how good we’re going to be, and I’m not into making lofty expectations of what we’re going to do.

“But we have a lot of young guys that need to take the next step, and we’re definitely doing that. Everybody is working hard, and we have goals. Like I said, we’re excited.”

Most of the focus for 2019 will be on second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose success or failure will have a major impact on this franchise for years. The Ravens have surrounded Jackson with young talent, such as as rookie receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, rookie running back Justice Hill and second-year tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews.

But a lot of this team’s success will come down to offensive line play. Last season, the Ravens were ranked No. 2 in rushing, averaging 152.6 yards per game in an offense dominated and built for the running game. They found out, though, that a team can’t win a Super Bowl title being so unbalanced, so the coaching staff spent the offseason adding more passing plays and formations to complement Jackson’s athletic skills.

But the new additions still needed an old hand in Yanda, who is considered the second best offensive lineman in team history behind Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. A former third-round draft pick selected by the Ravens out of Iowa in 2007, Yanda has earned Pro Bowl recognition seven times and has started 151 of 162 career games.

He might be the best guard in the NFL, and certainly one of the most technically sound. But after 12 years in the league and multiple leg and shoulder injuries, he thought about retirement during the 2018 season.

“Just with the injuries that I have had, last year was a wait-and-see kind of deal, one week at a time, one game at a time, and I just didn’t know how my body was going to hold up,” Yanda said. “So if I was going to end the season on injured reserve, then I was probably going to hang it up.

“But the good thing is, I made it through unscathed, and I’m healthy, and I feel really good. At the end of the season, I knew I wanted to come back and play. The deal was just making it through the season healthy.”

His return was a welcome relief for the Ravens because he gives them a physical presence in the middle. At the end of last season, the team got exposed for a lack of quickness and athleticism at both left guard and center.

With Yanda’s return and some modifications to the offensive scheme, the Ravens could solve some of those problems. But, like he said, the Ravens need some of the young players to step up.

After three seasons, it’s time for Ronnie Stanley to prove that he is one of the best left tackles in the NFL. All the tools are there. He has the size, the athleticism and even added some weight this offseason. He has had some minor injuries in the past, but 2019 needs to be a breakout season to the Pro Bowl level.

“He has been blessed,” Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “The good Lord has shined a lot of good talent on him, and if he’ll continue to develop that talent, who knows? The sky is the limit for his ability and growth.”

Second-year right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is in a similar situation. Stanley is more athletic than Brown, but Brown is bigger and should eventually become stronger. Brown has worked hard in the offseason to reshape his body and it is easy to see improvements.

But has he done enough to handle speed rushers in the NFL?

“You have to love his enthusiasm,” Yanda said of Brown. “The desire is there and he is a big man with a lot of ability. He just needs to work harder on where his foot and hand placements have to be. “

Most offensive lines are built around the tackles because they are often left isolated on the outside without the aid of double teams. Most teams have weak spots in the middle of the line, and the Ravens are no exception.

They lack power and speed at both the guard and center positions. There is some hope for center Matt Skura because he is only in his third season out of Duke, which isn’t a college football factory like Oklahoma or Alabama.

The left guard position is wide open. Sixth-year player James Hurst is one candidate, and so is third-year player Jermaine Eluemunor, who took all the repetitions with the first unit during minicamp.

But listen to what coach John Harbaugh had to say about Eluemunor on Thursday.

“We did want to give Eluemunor a number of reps in there because he has looked pretty good,” Harbaugh said. “Part of his deal is going to be getting himself in the kind of shape he wants to be in in the next four or five weeks to practice like he needs to practice and play, which I know he’s determined to do.”

Why isn’t he in shape now? A proven veteran like Yanda might get away with coming to camp a little out of shape, but not a former fifth-round unproven player like Eluemunor. This dude should be ready for an Iron Man marathon performance.

Instead, the Ravens are in search of a left guard with Hurst, Eleumunor, rookie Ben Powers and fourth-year player Alex Lewis, who can’t remain healthy for an extended period of time.

“Probably by, let’s say two weeks into training camp, after the first preseason game, we’ll probably have a real feel for who we think is going to be the leader in the clubhouse there,” Harbaugh said. “But, I would say, for now, we don’t have a leader. It would be James, if there’s anybody.”

That ought to make Jackson feel warm and fuzzy, but let’s see where this ends up. Keep an eye on second-year center Bradley Bozeman out of Alabama, even though he struggled at the end of last season as well.

But at least the Ravens have their best offensive lineman back this season in Yanda.

“The latter part of last season, you saw what took place,” D’Alessandris said. “When our number was called and it was time to run the ball, those guys stepped up and they did a wonderful job with it. We’ll see how this takes place this year.

“As I said, between now and September, who knows what we’re eventually going to develop into with our growth,” he said. “I don’t want to say we’ll be all run-heavy or pass-heavy. I think we’ll work towards that team chemistry with what needs to take place.”

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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