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Ravens, Kelechi Osemele have much to gain from left tackle experiment

Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele lines up for a play during training camp. If Osemele can excel at left tackle in place of the injured Eugene Monroe over the next three weeks, the Ravens might have one fewer position to fill during a busy offseason.
Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele lines up for a play during training camp. If Osemele can excel at left tackle in place of the injured Eugene Monroe over the next three weeks, the Ravens might have one fewer position to fill during a busy offseason. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The idea was first broached with Kelechi Osemele this past August, but until last week, it never went beyond periodic conversations. Ravens coach John Harbaugh wanted Osemele, his standout left guard, to know he could be called on at some point to play left tackle.

What started as a contingency plan has become a significant opportunity for Osemele, who passed his first NFL test at left tackle in Sunday's 35-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. As the Ravens play out the string, Osemele will try to prove he can handle another position, a task he's found challenging and invigorating.

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"It gets me working on my game. It's something different every day," Osemele said. "It's a unique thing to go out there and work on something that you haven't been playing. So, it's just fun."

It could be quite lucrative, too. In a little less than three months, Osemele is expected to hit a free agent market brimming with possibilities. He already was in line to earn a nice contract as one of the top available guards, but his experience playing left tackle figures to increase his market and perhaps his asking price.

What's unclear for the Ravens is how Osemele's late-season position shift could affect their offseason plans. Eugene Monroe's ongoing injury issues have created a clear need, but if Osemele excels at left tackle, he could distance himself even further from the Ravens' price range.

That's a risk worth taking for the cash-strapped team, former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker said.

"I think it's absolutely a smart move," said Tucker, an analyst for NBCSN and SiriusXM NFL Radio. "They already know what he is as a guard, and what value he provides there, and everybody in the league knows, too. His guard value isn't going to go down if he plays bad at tackle. The Ravens are giving him a chance to make more money, whether it's with them or somebody else. I can see why he's happy about it."

According to the website overthecap.com, which provides salary cap and contract information for NFL players, there are seven offensive tackles who have contracts that pay an average of $10 million per year or more. There are no such guards that fit that description.

Osemele said that he's focused on the task at hand. A week after making his NFL debut at tackle against accomplished rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, Osemele likely will spend Sunday's game matched up against the Kansas City Chiefs' Tamba Hali, who has 86 career sacks

"I'm only going to get better and better at it the more reps I get, but right now, I'm just kind of doing what's best for the team," he said. "We have a lot of injuries right now, so just doing my best to fill in any way I can."

Osemele said he hopes to play left tackle in the future. Whether that's with the Ravens or another team is a topic for another day.

"I don't really think about what everybody else is talking about," Osemele said. "I just kind of focus on the things that I can control and get as good as I can get at as many things as I can get."

Osemele, a second-round NFL draft pick in 2012, started 38 games at left tackle at Iowa State, so the position isn't exactly foreign to him. It just had been a while.

He started 16 regular season games at right tackle during his rookie year before moving to left guard during the Ravens' Super Bowl run. When healthy, the 26-year-old has been one of the better guards in the NFL. Harbaugh, though, admitted that he's always kept the possibility of Osemele playing left tackle in the back of his mind. The Ravens have had other options at tackle and Osemele's physicality and run blocking made him a fixture at guard.

However, this year's circumstances prompted the Ravens to give him a try at left tackle. Monroe, in the second year of a five-year, $37.5 million contract, started six of 12 games this season before going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Top reserve tackle James Hurst struggled.

As the Ravens got ready for the Seahawks last week, the coaching staff decided that their best healthy offensive line alignment included Osemele at left tackle and Ryan Jensen at left guard. The Ravens couldn't run the ball against the Seahawks and quarterback Jimmy Clausen was hit 11 times, but Osemele held up reasonably well.

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"To go out there and play in that position, one of the toughest positions in football against a couple of really, really elite players in this league, I think, showed a lot," Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "I think he likes the challenge of being out there on an island, but we'll see. It was a good start for him."

Osemele, who is 6 feet 5 and 330 pounds, certainly looks the part. With Monroe out, he's probably the team's most athletic lineman. He's also known as one of the team's most physical players.

"I think he's a dominant guard, a Pro Bowl guard that could be above average at right tackle, and maybe a solid starter at left tackle. I'm not sure he's that gifted athletically with his feet and his quickness, but I think he can get the job done," Tucker said. "I'm just a huge fan of his tenacity and aggressiveness. I think that's the way you should play the position. He takes care of dudes like not many people in the NFL."

Former Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams believes Osemele would be an upgrade over Monroe.

"He has great athleticism, as we saw him play a snap without a shoe and still do his job," Williams said. "He could be a good left tackle and start there for many years, but he is a Pro Bowl-caliber guard. He has the ability to move and is versatile. With his play, I truly think the Monroe era is over and it needs to be over."

Releasing Monroe this offseason would create $6.6 million in "dead money" on the salary cap, so it's hardly a formality that the Ravens will go that direction. There's also the not-so-small matter of signing Osemele to a contract extension when the Ravens figure to have limited salary cap space and a host of needs.

If Osemele plays well over the next couple of weeks, keeping him will only be more difficult.

"If that's what teams see — if they see that I'm versatile enough to play different positions — that's cool, but right now it's more about just doing whatever I can to fill in for all the injuries that we've had." Osemele said. "I'm just kind of trying to get in there and make sure there isn't a huge drop-off in play and try to help the team win the best way I can, and that's, for right now, playing left tackle."

Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this article.

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