Ravens left guard Alex Lewis had virtually gone underground since a shoulder injury in training camp last August forced him to miss the entire 2017 season.
On Tuesday, Lewis was one of several players available to the media as the Ravens began the first phase of their offseason workout program.
But according to former Ravens assistant offensive line coach Todd Washington, he has been working Lewis out several times a week since March. Everything, according to both Washington and Lewis, looks good and the torn labrum is completely healed.
"It was mentally tough," Lewis said of being sidelined last year. "You always want to be out with the team. You always want to be playing. But at the same time, it gives you time to reflect on the game and you realize your strengths and weaknesses. You look at it as a way you can grow and not be sour about it. I'm feeling great, ready to get to work. I'm ready to rock."
"It's not like we've had him out hitting bags or leaning on anyone else," said Washington, an assistant offensive line coach with the Ravens from 2011 through 2016. "We've been working on his footwork, technical things like his pass set, proper knee bend and other skill-working fundamentals. Alex is taking it very seriously. He has the right frame of mind to be a starter again. He appears ready to go out and have a breakout year."
That's what the Ravens want to hear. In fact, the return of Lewis, who turns 26 on April 21, is just as exciting as the Ravens signing receivers Michael Crabtree and John Brown. If a quarterback doesn't have time to throw, then it makes no difference who starts on the outside.
The Ravens had to get their guards back healthy just as much as they needed receivers. Right guard Marshal Yanda missed the final 14 games of 2017 with an ankle injury. Lewis missed all of last season after shoulder surgery.
Lewis said Tuesday that Yanda was feeling great and was currently with the team, which is a good sign. Lewis also said he doesn't have to wear any type of harness or brace, and is just getting past the six- to eight-month recovery time.
"No, I'm not worried about it at all," Lewis said of the shoulder. "If I were, I wouldn't be out here. I love this sport, I love this game. When you start worrying about injuries, it is going to affect your game."
Lewis' return is important for several reasons. The Ravens already lost center Ryan Jensen to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through free agency and they declined to pick up the option on right tackle Austin Howard's contract a month ago.
With Lewis back, the Ravens can shift James Hurst to replace Howard or have the option of using Hurst at left guard and Lewis at right tackle. Lewis has quicker feet than Hurst and would be able to handle speed rushers better, but the Ravens might want to settle Lewis into his more natural position of guard.
Lewis can also play center. He has no preference when it comes to where he lines up.
"The more positions you can play on the offensive line, the longer your career is going to be," Lewis said. "As an offensive lineman, you understand very early things could change week to week depending on who is healthy and who is playing and not playing. You have to be dynamic and versatile and able to accept that as a player, and play at a high level. I just want to get on the field."
Lewis has a lot of untapped potential. He has the pedigree. His father, Bill, played in the NFL for eight years. After being chosen in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, Lewis played eight games at left guard and two at left tackle in his rookie season.
He has all the ingredients to be successful in the NFL. At 6 feet 6 and 315 pounds, he has the speed to be a guard and make the blocks into the second level. He has the body frame to add some weight if the Ravens want to move him full-time to tackle.
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He'll still struggle with mechanics this season because it is really only his second year and he has to learn a new run-blocking scheme installed last season by assistant coach Greg Roman.
Lewis also has to prove he can stay healthy. While at Nebraska, he started 26 consecutive games. But as a rookie, he missed one game with a concussion, missed five games with an ankle injury and then missed all of last season with the shoulder problem.
There is also film on Lewis from the 10 games he played as a rookie. Opposing teams weren't able to exploit any weaknesses last season, but they will in 2018.
"This is a big year for me going into year three," Lewis said. "You settle down in year one, you're pretty amped up and you learn so much about the game. Year two came and I got hit with the injury. I come in this year and I'm more comfortable as a player and a person in the building, so this should be a breakout year."
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