One poorly timed disaster recast the entire story of the Ravens’ offensive line in 2020.
A unit that had pulled together as the team won six straight games fell apart in the Ravens’ AFC divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills. As they combed through the ashes of that performance, coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta said improving the team’s interior blocking would be a priority this offseason. This means change is again likely for a group that lived with uncertainty throughout 2020.
In the fifth of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s offensive line situation. Next up is defensive end and outside linebacker.
2020 in review
From the moment Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda announced his retirement in March, the Ravens knew they would have to fill an impossible hole. Not only was Yanda still playing at an elite level; he set the standard for every young lineman who walked into the team’s practice facility. The Ravens had to find his replacement and figure out if Matt Skura, rehabilitating a major knee injury, would be healthy enough to start at center. On the bright side, they were set at tackle, with a pair of young Pro Bowl selections in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.
Rookie Tyre Phillips won a camp battle for Yanda’s old spot, and Skura reclaimed his job, surprising coaches with the pace of his recovery. But the line did not play up to its 2019 standard early in the season. Matters grew worse in Week 8 when Stanley, arguably the finest pass blocker in football, suffered a season-ending ankle fracture. Skura’s snapping difficulties, which reached a nadir in the Ravens’ rain-soaked loss to the New England Patriots, added another problem to the heap.
The Ravens scrambled to find a workable alignment, with Brown shifting to fill in for Stanley at left tackle, Patrick Mekari starting at center, Ben Powers stepping in at right guard and Phillips and Fluker sharing time at right tackle. This version of the offensive line found its footing with a series of dominant run-blocking performances down the stretch and in a wild-card playoff win over the Tennessee Titans. But the right side collapsed against the Bills, who pressured Lamar Jackson relentlessly and ultimately knocked him out of the game with a concussion. This debacle, which also featured errant snaps from Mekari, left the Ravens with questions about their future plans at center and guard.
Skinny: Stanley wasn’t quite playing up to his All-Pro level from 2019 when his ankle folded under him in a Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he was still an elite player at one of the NFL’s premium positions. He’s rehabilitating and expected to be back at left tackle to start the 2021 season. The Ravens have committed to him as a building block for their future.
Contract status: The 26-year-old Stanley signed a five-year, $98.75-million extension shortly before he suffered his season-ending injury. He’ll earn a base salary of $7.5 million with a signing bonus of $16.25 million in 2021.
Orlando Brown Jr.
Skinny: Brown started the season at right tackle but switched sides seamlessly, making his second straight Pro Bowl. He raised eyebrows with a recent Twitter post suggesting that he sees himself as a left tackle — the position he played in college at Oklahoma — going forward. With his pal, Stanley, entrenched in that spot, it’s not clear what Brown’s words portend for 2021.
Contract status: Brown is entering the fourth and final season of his rookie deal and is eligible for an extension. He’ll make a $920,000 base salary in 2021.
Skinny: Bozeman started all 16 games for a second straight season and solidified his status as an above-average NFL guard. He and Brown were the only linemen who held up well in the loss to the Bills. He was also the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in recognition of his extensive community service.
Contract status: Bozeman will make a $920,000 base salary in the last season of the four-year deal he signed as a sixth-round pick out of Alabama. He’s eligible for an extension.
Skinny: Mekari played both guard and center and held his own as Skura’s replacement, at least until his season-worst performance against Buffalo. His versatility will put him in the mix for 2021, but the Ravens probably won’t be comfortable handing him the starting center job.
Contract status: Mekari will make an $850,000 base salary in the last season of a three-year deal he signed as an undrafted free agent. He’ll hit restricted free agency after the 2021 season.
Skinny: Powers was viewed as a bubble player in training camp after an undistinguished rookie season. But he changed the trajectory of his career with his solid performance as the team’s starting right guard down the stretch. He picked a bad time to have his worst game, breaking down as a pass and run blocker against the Bills.
Contract status: Powers will make an $850,000 base salary in the third season of a four-year deal he signed as a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma.
Skinny: Phillips surprised many observers by winning the right guard job without the benefit of any preseason action. He’s a smart, confident player whose 6-foot-5, 331-pound frame fits the Ravens’ vision of a power blocker. But he didn’t consistently win strength battles, and his lack of polish as a pass blocker showed up when he played right tackle late in the season. He’ll be in the mix at both guard and tackle going into 2021 but probably not as a projected starter.
Contract status: Phillips will make a $780,000 base salary in the second season of a four-year deal he signed as a third-round pick out of Mississippi State.
Skinny: The mammoth veteran was viewed as a slight front-runner to win Yanda’s old job going into training camp and ended up starting eight games at guard and tackle. He was still an effective run blocker, but his limits as a pass blocker showed up in the Bills loss. Given Harbaugh’s emphasis on improving interior pass blocking, Fluker will likely have to search for a new home.
Contract status: Fluker is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Skura made remarkable progress in rehabilitation just to get on the field for Week 1. But he did not play up to his previous level, and his snapping difficulties relegated him to a supporting role as a sixth lineman. He’s a well-respected figure on the team but might have to look elsewhere for a shot at a starting role.
Contract status: Skura is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: DeCosta touted Colon-Castillo as an undrafted free agent who might stick, and he ultimately earned his place on the 53-man roster after beginning the season on the practice squad. He handled the center job smoothly against the Steelers in Week 12 and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17, but he’ll need to get stronger to compete for a starting role in 2021.
Contract status: Colon-Castillo is an exclusive-rights free agent.
Skinny: Bredeson was touted as an unusually polished lineman coming out of Michigan but played just 48 offensive snaps, mostly as a sixth blocker in running situations. His ability to play center will help him stay in the roster mix for 2021.
Contract status: Bredeson will make a $780,000 base salary in the second season of the four-year deal he signed as a fourth-round pick.
1. Will Brown’s desire to play left tackle force the Ravens to explore a trade?
With their focus on building a Super Bowl-worthy roster, the Ravens would like to slot Stanley on one end and Brown on the other and move on to other issues. But Brown’s ambition to play the more lucrative role complicates their outlook.
He’s under contract, so if they want him to play right tackle in 2021, that’s probably what will happen. But Brown’s comments cast doubt on a possible extension, which would have been expensive anyway given his performance in 2020. If some team offered a first-round pick, the Ravens would have to consider moving on from Brown a year early. It’s not clear he’ll draw that level of interest.
No matter what happens with Brown, the Ravens need to add young depth at tackle.
2. Will the Ravens look for outside help at center?
Mekari’s snapping difficulties in the most important game of the season undermined his case to claim a starting job going into training camp. The Ravens have other options on their roster, from Colon-Castillo to Bredeson to Bozeman in a more radical scenario. They also signed veteran Greg Mancz to a reserve/futures contract.
None of these guys is a slam-dunk answer to what ails them. With proven starters such as Corey Linsley, David Andrews and Alex Mack available on the free-agent market, DeCosta could go shopping.
3. Will a long-term starter emerge from the Ravens’ collection of young guards?
The search for Yanda’s replacement remains unresolved, though Powers made a case with his consistent play late in the season. Was his poor performance against the Bills enough to knock him back down the depth chart? Will Phillips reassert himself on the interior after his run at right tackle ended poorly? Could this be Mekari’s best landing spot?
Harbaugh was dissatisfied with his team’s interior pass blocking, and we know DeCosta will draft at least one offensive lineman, probably more. This sets the table for another summer of wide-open competition.
It’s hard to imagine the Ravens coming back without fresh faces on an offensive line that could not protect Jackson in Buffalo. In addition to looking for free-agent help at center, the Ravens seem likely to use one of their top three draft picks on a lineman. They need candidates to compete at right guard and center and to fill Brown’s shoes in the future.
First- and second-round candidates could include Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis, Michigan tackle Jalen Mayfield, USC guard Elijah Vera-Tucker, Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins and Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey.