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Ravens need to protect investments with a stronger offensive line

There has been a lot of speculation about the contract talks of running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco, but there should be just as much concern about the players who will block for them in 2012.

It all begins with left guard Ben Grubbs, an unrestricted free agent who is the team's best offensive lineman.

If Grubbs returns, the Ravens might waive left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. If he doesn't, McKinnie could stick around for another season.

With both Grubbs and center Matt Birk unrestricted free agents, the Ravens can get by with two new offensive linemen, but they don't want three new faces in the starting group.

On Friday, the Ravens made a few moves. As expected, they put the franchise tag on Rice and cut receiver Lee Evans and cornerback Chris Carr . Those moves weren't significant, but the offseason is just starting to warm up.

In 2011, the Ravens offensive line was average at best. If you listen to head coach John Harbaugh, he wants both Grubbs and Birk to return which would give him all five starters back.

But Harbaugh is just giving lip service. He can't bring this group back. They consistently failed on short yardage situations and had problems providing pass protection for Flacco.

A player or two has to go for the Ravens to upgrade, so if the Ravens re-sign Grubbs and Birk, it would have to be McKinnie. He never worked his way into good playing shape last season, was stiff and a liability when it came to run blocking.

Right offensive tackle Michael Oher didn't have a very strong season either, but he's a former first-round pick who recently completed his third season. The question surrounding Oher is what happened to the mean streak that he displayed as a rookie.

Those were the days when he would pancake a player 10 yards down the field, or rip an opponents' helmet off. The rookie Michael Oher got into fights and displayed the same mean, nasty temperament as former Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown, but it's gone.

Where is it?

With Birk, his best days are behind him and he didn't get much push on short yardage or goal line situations. After each season, he deliberates on whether to retire, but he wants to play in 2012.

Regardless if he re-signs or not, the Ravens need to bring in a bigger , more physical center, even if it is as an understudy for a year. That might be a major change, but there could be more for the Ravens, especially with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano becoming head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

With Pagano in Baltimore, there were only two other AFC head coaches who knew the Ravens system and the value of certain players. But both New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis have been joined by Pagano.

There will be a bidding war, or at least threats, on several of the Ravens other unrestricted free agents. Both Ryan and Pagano will go hard after linebackers Jameel McClain and Jarret Johnson. And even if they can't match certain offers, they can force other teams to over pay and cause eventual salary cap problems.

"I'm sure they have talked," said Johnson of the Ravens and his agent. "But there is nothing active going on. The Ravens will be in the mix. I have been there so long. I have a lot of friends on the team, so it's natural that I would want to stay there."

"I love my teammates but I'm not idiot," Johnson said. "I know how this business works and I know how Ozzie works. You prepare for this time and it's always in your mind, but what I've done over the last five years I can't change now. I'd like to add a few more sacks and a few more tackles, but I can't. The body of work is there for them to judge."

Ravens safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski, both unrestricted free agents and basically special teams performers in Baltimore, will probably get starting offers from other teams.

Rice's situation is different. As the designated franchise player, he is expected to make $7.7 million next season, a major increase over the $600,000 he made last season.

The Ravens can continue to negotiate with Rice, but it will be interesting to see if he participates in offseason mini camps and comes to training camp on time if no deal is reached.

Rice is a quality person, and takes his leadership role seriously. If it was left up to him, he'd probably be there for his teammates. But players sometimes buckle under the pressure of their agents who usually advise them to stay out.

If Rice attends those camps, his agent, Todd France, will probably tell him that he is losing leverage. If he doesn't, he'll be losing a major public relations war in Baltimore. In these tough economic times, it's hard to justify holding out when the unemployment rate is so high and a lot of people are struggling financially.

Maybe Rice needs to remember that his agent works for him, and he doesn't work for his agent. The final call is Rice's.

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