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Lamar Jackson needs help at wide receiver, but the Ravens want to build a ‘pipeline’ at offensive line

INDIANAPOLIS — There is not a quarterback in the NFL like Lamar Jackson, and there is not a quarterback in the NFL like Patrick Mahomes, and maybe the best argument for why their brilliance will endure is that they’re already protected like endangered species.

The Ravens had a first-team All-Pro left tackle, a second-team All-Pro right guard and the NFL’s second-best offensive line last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The Kansas City Chiefs’ line, beset by injuries for much of 2019, was still the NFL’s best at sustaining pass blocks over the first three seconds, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats.

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Want an NFL Most Valuable Player or a Super Bowl MVP? First, find a transcendent talent. Then find tackles and guards and centers who can keep him upright.

“You look at those two guys, MVP-type seasons — arguably two of the top three offensive lines in the league,” Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Tuesday in Indianapolis. “When the guy back there is comfortable and has time and has the skill set, they can do phenomenal things.”

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Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta arrived here at the NFL scouting combine with a roster short on playmaking wide receivers and a draft class teeming with them. During a conference call last week, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said he’d given 27 receivers at least a third-round grade. It would be a minor miracle if fewer than six are taken in the first round alone.

But as DeCosta and his front office seek to stabilize and perhaps enhance an offense that finished first in the NFL in both passing and rushing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, they are again reckoning with how little they can leave to chance with their offensive line. Around the league, it is a tricky balance to strike: Should your rising-star quarterback have an arsenal or a fortress?

“Tell me all the great teams with bad offensive lines and tell me all the bad teams with great offensive lines,” Jeremiah said during the conference call, recalling a conversation he’d had with an NFL team’s personnel director. “It’s, like, at some point in time, it’s not complicated: The teams with good offensive lines, you have a high floor every year. They’ll keep you competitive, give you a chance to win each and every week.

“I don't know that offensive line has been more important than it is right now. When you look at the investment with these playoff teams, what they've done in the offensive line, it sticks out like a sore thumb. So you better invest. That's with high picks, with free agents. But you need to take care of your offensive line. I think that's first and foremost.”

The Ravens seem to agree. On Tuesday, DeCosta said they’d already begun negotiations with All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley over a contract extension. Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman last season after signing a four-year, $72 million contract extension. Stanley, who’s set to become a free agent next offseason, could top that.

That would take care of just one position long-term, though. Marshal Yanda is considering retirement, and his exit would leave a sizable hole at right guard. At center, Matt Skura is recovering from a season-ending knee injury. Left guard Bradley Bozeman and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. impressed in their second seasons in Baltimore, but free agency beckons for both after the 2021 season.

Where does that leave the Ravens? “Well,” DeCosta said Tuesday, “we’re going to have depth, and we’re going to have depth every year.” DeCosta said he and coach John Harbaugh “really prioritize” the offensive line. So much, in fact, that they’re committed to drafting linemen “every single year.”

“We’re going to continue to have guys in the pipeline because, No. 1, they get hurt, and No. 2, you need a bunch of them, and No. 3, you can’t keep everybody,” he said.

But the Ravens need help elsewhere, too. Especially at wide receiver, where the team finished with 115 catches for 1,419 yards last season, both NFL lows. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown flashed his field-stretching ability as a rookie, but of the team’s returning receivers under contract, only Willie Snead IV has consistently contributed. Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk and LSU’s Justin Jefferson, among other potential first-round talents, could produce immediately.

Jackson’s generational ability creates unique questions for Ravens officials. With his passing talents, he led the NFL in QBR and touchdown passes despite a lackluster wideout group. With his open-field athleticism, he helped neutralize fearsome edge rushers. The challenge is finding players who can amplify those talents at a reasonable enough price tag.

Jackson "can do some magical things, but we also want to keep him protected,” DeCosta said. “We also want to put skill players around him so that defenses can’t just focus on Lamar, and we can keep the field kind of balanced. …

“But we feel really good about where we are. We want to add to that. We want to continue to keep a strong offensive line. We want to have the best offensive line that we can have, but we also want to add playmakers around Lamar. We started doing that last year with [running back] Justice [Hill] and [wide receivers] Miles [Boykin] and ‘Hollywood’ and guys like that. That will continue. We feel strongly about that and we’re excited about where the offense can go.”

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Dave Gettleman, meanwhile, knows how a young quarterback can fail. The New York Giants general manager is overseeing the team’s offensive line makeover. All that’s at stake is the viability of Daniel Jones, a first-round pick like Jackson.

“The bottom line is, last time I checked, it’s really difficult to complete a pass when you’re on your back,” Gettleman said Tuesday. “I’ve done that study.”

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