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Mike Preston: Ravens offensive line will take time to build, even with pieces in place | COMMENTARY

Nearly 30 offensive tackles were picked in the NFL draft over the weekend, and the Ravens didn’t select one. Either they didn’t feel any were worthy, or they believe their offensive line is still going to be one of the best in 2021.

It’s probably a combination of both.

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The Ravens were still searching for a starting right tackle before signing former Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva to a two-year, $14 million deal Tuesday. He’s in the twilight of his career, but won’t be a significant drop-off from previous starter Orlando Brown Jr.

The Ravens offensive line will be good again, but it’s going to take some time. Good enough to win a Super Bowl? Well, let’s not go there right now.

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Regardless, the Ravens should still have one of the best running games in the NFL for the third straight season because the nucleus of the offensive line returns, including left tackle Ronnie Stanley and guards Bradley Bozeman and Ben Powers. The Ravens also added veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, who is expected to start on the right side. With Villanueva and Zeitler, the Ravens will have a formidable group.

Timing, though, will be a problem. The Ravens can load up on bulk, but offensive line play is as much about rhythm. That means the Ravens could be playing musical chairs for a while. There will be limitations on player participation during offseason training, and that could change depending on any coronavirus spikes.

The preseason schedule and training camp might be limited as well. Even under normal circumstances, an offensive line could take several regular-season games to jell.

The Ravens need time to piece together the parts. Villanueva and Zeitler are veterans but still have to learn new offensive systems and terminology. Even if the Ravens hadn’t signed Villanueva, second-year tackle Tyre Phillips, a third-round pick in 2020 out of Mississippi State, has more experience at guard then tackle.

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The Ravens could have chosen a tackle in the draft, but declined, which was a little unusual considering Brown’s recent departure in a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens could have used more depth.

Ben Cleveland is a 6-foot-6, 343-pound, nicknamed “Big Country,” started seven games at right guard for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2019 and all nine in 2020.

“Well, we’re not going to reach on guys,” general manager Eric DeCosta said. “Our board might look different from other teams’ boards or the media’s board. We’re going to draft the best players we can at any given spot. There’s a lot of factors. Sometimes there’s a medical factor that has to be brought into the equation. Sometimes there’s a scheme factor [or] there’s personality factor.

“There’s a lot of different things that we look at. Again, I think we’re really comfortable where we are right now as an offensive line and as an offense with personnel. Certainly, if the opportunity presents itself over the next four months or three months to add additional players at any position, we’ll consider that very strongly and do what’s best for the club.”

There is talk of moving Bozeman, who has started the past two seasons at left guard, to center, even though he hasn’t played the position since leaving Alabama three years ago. Bozeman would compete with Patrick Mekari and Trystan Colon-Castillo. Mekari played well in 2019 but struggled last season. Colon-Castillo, a former undrafted free agent, was solid in the two games he started last season, but disappeared out of the starting lineup without any explanation.

The left guard competition should be one of the best in training camp with Powers, Ben Bredeson and rookie Ben Cleveland battling for the starting spot. Stanley is the best lineman on the team, but there are questions about when he might return because of an ankle injury that required two surgeries last season.

Somehow, the Ravens have to bring this all together. Fortunately, they have a very good offensive line coach in Joe D’Alessandris, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman specializes in building an effective running game.

He has had success in that area wherever he has coached, including stops in San Francisco and Buffalo. The same system has been in place for three years here, and that familiarity should help in terms of communication and assignments — who is pulling and who isn’t, the proper calls in pass protection and who is covered or uncovered.

There are so many intricacies in offensive line play, and it takes time to work them out. The Ravens have the talent and the system to do so, but it’s just a matter of when.

“I can’t wait,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m ready to go to practice and I’m looking forward to seeing these guys.”

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