There was no getting around it at Ravens practices this past month: Bradley Bozeman, the new guy at center, was inheriting a position that had frayed nerves, provoked profanities and, yes, maybe even cost games over the past year.
“I’m always on him, because we have a thing around here about snaps — don’t we all? — from last year,” coach John Harbaugh joked after the Ravens’ final practice of mandatory minicamp Wednesday. “So we’re going to be looking at those snaps.”
If the Ravens’ most important player is Lamar Jackson, their second-most important might be the amiable Alabama center turned NFL left guard now entrusted with getting the ball to the quarterback without incident. Or at least it feels that way after a season in which the Ravens’ pistol and shotgun snaps were no longer the formality they’d been in years past.
In a Week 9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, center Matt Skura, dealing with a cut on his hand, sent some snaps high and wide. A week later, amid a downpour, Skura had an errant delivery on a third-quarter fourth-and-1 play and another costly snap that knocked the Ravens back in the fourth quarter of a grim loss to the New England Patriots. In the Ravens’ playoff defeat, with Patrick Mekari in at center against the Buffalo Bills, Jackson’s attempt to salvage a snap that soared over his head led to an intentional-grounding penalty and a season-ending concussion.
Bozeman, who’d started the past two seasons next to Skura and Mekari, said Wednesday that he “always knew” returning to center, where he’d starred in college, was a possibility. When the Ravens regrouped this spring, Harbaugh told Bozeman that he was atop the depth chart. Skura had signed with the Miami Dolphins. Mekari, a tackle at California, played primarily guard and tackle during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp.
“We’ve had some issues in the past, but things happen,” Bozeman said. “No one is perfect. But it’s just a consistency thing. We’ve got to continue to be consistent, continue to get your hands on the ball, snapping the ball, doing the right mechanics. Making sure you’re doing your job to the best of your ability, and that’s the biggest thing right now. That’s all that I can control. I can’t control the past. I can only control the future from here on out. So I’m just going to continue to try to stay consistent and just stay in my motor development and mechanics.”
The position has perhaps never been more important, not just in Baltimore but also around the NFL. Earlier this month, former Bills general manager Doug Whaley said some league scouts and executives believe center has eclipsed left tackle as the offensive line’s most important position, owing to the complex defensive alignments that offenses see (and that centers must recognize) before every snap.
Reliable centers are especially important for young quarterbacks, Whaley said, who can “function at a higher level with a lot less mental taxation.”
So Bozeman’s focus this offseason has been everything up to and including the snap. He’s immersed himself in the nuances of coordinator Greg Roman’s offense: when to adjust the Ravens’ pass protection, how defensive fronts affect the offense’s plan, what’s expected of running backs and tight ends on certain plays. It’s a lot to process, but nothing too different from what he was asked to do at Alabama, he said.
Bozeman has also spent time after practice working on his snaps, restoring and fine-tuning his muscle memory. Even if the Ravens spend more time under center in 2020, as Roman recently indicated they would, the team could still be among the NFL’s leaders in shotgun and pistol snaps. In a competitive AFC North, there will be little room for error, and Bozeman’s aim was true throughout OTAs and minicamp.
“I love the transition back to center,” Bozeman said. “I’ve always felt like that’s where I kind of dominate, in that tighter area. I’m a very intelligent person, I feel like, especially when it comes to football. But just continue to learn the playbook, progress, learn the protections, learn all the crazy different fronts that our defense gives us and try to block those. If you can block our defense, you can block any defense in the league.”
Said Harbaugh: “He’s all over it, so he’s done great. He looks very natural. I saw a quote that he said, ‘Center is my natural position.’ I believe it by watching him out there. So [he] just keeps building and keeps getting better.”
That was Bozeman’s progression at left guard, where he made one start as a rookie despite little experience, 16 starts in 2019 and another 16 in 2020, when he finished with a top-10 run-block and pass-block win rate among NFL guards, according to ESPN.
With Bozeman entering the final year of his rookie contract, this season could shape his future in Baltimore. If Bozeman’s ascent continues at center, he’ll be due a big raise; his salary cap hit in 2021 is just $2.2 million. And the Ravens need only to look back at last season to see just how costly the position can be.
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“It all starts with the center,” Bozeman said. “It all starts there.”