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Ravens draft preview: Who will replace Marshal Yanda on the offensive line?

Fresno State lineman Netane Muti could be a good fit for the Ravens in this year's draft.
Fresno State lineman Netane Muti could be a good fit for the Ravens in this year's draft. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

For more than a decade, the Ravens enjoyed the luxury of building their offensive line around Marshal Yanda. Line him up at his familiar right guard and he’d deliver guaranteed Pro Bowl performance. Shift him to left guard or right tackle in a pinch and he’d handle those jobs as well. All the while, he helped mold the young blockers growing up around him.

When Yanda retired last month, he left a gaping and unfamiliar void at the heart of one of the NFL’s best offenses. Ravens coach John Harbaugh recently said the eight-time Pro Bowl selection could not be replaced. But general manager Eric DeCosta must attempt to do just that in the upcoming draft. With center Matt Skura also facing uncertainty as he rehabilitates from a daunting knee injury, DeCosta faces no task more urgent than fortifying his interior offensive line.

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The Ravens run more often and more efficiently than any team in the NFL, so they’re looking for large, powerful blockers to lead the way. The 2020 draft class is rich in high-end tackle prospects, most of whom could shift inside to play guard, DeCosta said. But the top five players at the position — Tristan Wirfs of Iowa, Mekhi Becton of Louisville, Jedrick Wills Jr. of Alabama, Andrew Thomas of Georgia and Josh Jones of Houston — could all be off the board by the time the Ravens pick at No. 28 overall.

If that’s the case, DeCosta might see better value in waiting until the second or third round to strike at this position of need. The 2020 offensive line class is not as lauded for depth as for premium talent, but the Ravens will have options as they search for a potential day-one starter. Here’s a look at the players who might fit best:

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Fresno State’s Netane Muti (No. 2)

Why he’d fit: Muti is widely graded as the best pure guard in the class and plays with the power and nastiness the Ravens covet. He fired off 44 bench-press reps at the NFL scouting combine, yet was disappointed he did not break the record of 49. That workout strength translates to the field, where he manhandled college defenders.

Yanda delighted in run blocking, and the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Muti seems cut from the same cloth, slamming into defenders on pulls and maintaining contact until the whistle. He’s also a sturdy pass blocker who plays with excellent leverage and strong hands.

Harbaugh and his staff often talk about “playing like a Raven,” and Muti epitomizes that ideal on tape with his tenacity and obvious zeal for the grunt work of interior blocking.

Why he might not: With injury questions at center, the Ravens need a guard they can plug in without worry. And the biggest knock on Muti is his lack of durability. After he played 955 snaps as a redshirt freshman, he combined for just 318 over the last two seasons, which ended because of a torn Achilles and a shoulder injury, respectively. Were those injuries simply bad luck or indicative of a greater problem? DeCosta has said pandemic-related restrictions might make it harder to investigate health concerns. Could that be an issue with scouting Muti?

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Beyond the injuries, Muti did not consistently play against elite competition in the Mountain West Conference. Scouts say his agility (an underrated strength for Yanda) does not match his strength.

Michigan offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.
Michigan offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz (No. 1)

Why he’d fit: Ruiz is the best center in the draft and could offer good value for the Ravens if they want to hedge against the uncertainty caused by Skura’s injury. He began his career at Michigan as a right guard, and though he was less effective there, he could probably adapt, as Bradley Bozeman has for the Ravens.

Scouts don’t see Ruiz as an overpowering athlete, but he performed well across the board at the combine, and at 20, he’s still young for a top prospect. More importantly, he matured into an excellent pass blocker while facing good competition at Michigan. Ruiz might not destroy the man in front of him, but he gets off the line quickly and maintains his blocks.

The Ravens have an accurate feel for him because of their ties to the Michigan program. “He’s a guy that plays on his feet; he’s very, very smart,” DeCosta said. “He’s got a good body. He’s a very good athlete. He’s got a good, strong punch. He can anchor. He can play in space. Basically, he can do all the things you want a center to do.”

Why he might not: The Ravens love powerhouse linemen who thrive as run blockers, and Ruiz is not that at this point in his career, though scouts see room for growth.

It’s also unclear whether they’d want to use one of their top picks on a center when Skura, who established himself as a quality starter last season, remains in the fold. Ruiz could play guard, but he’s most valuable as a center. That was the context in which DeCosta listed his virtues.

Louisiana Lafayette running back Trey Ragas (9) and offensive lineman Robert Hunt (50) during an NCAA college football game against Liberty, Saturday, September 7, 2019, in Lafayette, La.
Louisiana Lafayette running back Trey Ragas (9) and offensive lineman Robert Hunt (50) during an NCAA college football game against Liberty, Saturday, September 7, 2019, in Lafayette, La. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

Louisiana-Lafayette’s Robert Hunt (No. 3)

Why he’d fit: The Ravens love big offensive linemen and the 6-foot-5, 323-pound Hunt certainly fits that bill. He started his college career at left guard but finished it at right tackle, where he excelled as both a run and pass blocker. When Louisiana-Lafayette stepped outside its conference to play better competition, he more than held his own.

Hunt moves well laterally for such a big man and uses his powerful hands to maintain blocks. But he’s not a finesse player. He enjoys run blocking. Between his physical traits and aggressive demeanor, he might have the highest upside of all the interior-line prospects.

Why he might not: Hunt is less experienced in pass protection than many of his peers, and scouts see inconsistency in his footwork. A groin injury ended his senior season and also kept him out of the Senior Bowl and the combine. So he didn’t get to make a closing argument for his draft status.

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz (61) reacts during an NCAA college football game, in Tampa, Fla. Biadasz was selected to The Associated Press All-America team, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Lomoglio, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz (61) reacts during an NCAA college football game, in Tampa, Fla. Biadasz was selected to The Associated Press All-America team, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Lomoglio, File) (Mark Lomoglio/AP)

Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz (No. 6)

Why he’d fit: Biadasz stood out as a three-year starter at center for one of the premier offensive-line factories in college football. Top center prospects are often finesse players, but he made his reputation clearing space for Jonathan Taylor, one of the most productive runners in NCAA history.

Biadasz has quick, powerful hands, and as a polished prospect, he would give the Ravens immediate insurance against Skura’s knee injury.

Why he might not: Scouts worry about Biadasz’s lack of development as a pass blocker. He tends to lean with his upper body and lose his balance. Unlike Ruiz, he played center throughout college, and it’s unclear whether the Ravens would use a second-day pick on a player with no track record at guard or tackle.

Ohio State offensive lineman Jonah Jackson runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ohio State offensive lineman Jonah Jackson runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Michael Conroy/AP)

Ohio State’s Jonah Jackson (No. 5)

Why he’d fit: Jackson bet on himself by transferring to Ohio State for his last season of eligibility after four years at Rutgers. The bet paid off as he won the starting left guard job and made first-team All-Big-Ten. He played right guard and center at Rutgers, so his versatility is established.

Jackson maintains excellent balance and awareness as a pass blocker. Scouts consistently praise him for recovering if he’s initially beaten.

Why he might not: Jackson struggles to get low and generate power as a run blocker, which would make him less than ideal for the Ravens’ bruising schemes. Some scouts see him as a flexible back-up more than a longtime starter at guard.

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LSU’s Damien Lewis (No. 4)

Why he’d fit: Lewis is a stout power blocker who thrived for the best team in college football last season. At 327 pounds, he plays with real killer instinct in the run game and overpowered SEC defenders when he was on form. More than one scouting report has compared him to a human forklift. He’s also a good athlete for his size, as he demonstrated at the combine.

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Every year, the Ravens talk about making their offensive line bigger and stronger. Lewis is a man for that mission.

Why he might not: Because of his modest height and inconsistent pass-blocking technique, Lewis lacks the versatility of some other interior-line prospects. Scouts question his ability to cover ground and adjust to the full spectrum of NFL blocking schemes.

Michigan’s Ben Bredeson (No. 7)

Why he’d fit: Bredeson has been linked to the Ravens in many a mock draft and it’s easy to understand why, given that he started all four years for a college program to which they’re closely linked. He’s an unusually consistent blocker whose 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame would suit the Ravens’ desire for big linemen. If DeCosta addresses other needs in the first three rounds, Bredeson could still be available as a solid value in the fourth.

Why he might not: Despite his ideal size for a guard, Bredeson was not an overpowering run blocker at Michigan. Scouts wonder if he’s too slow out of his stance to hold up against high-end NFL defensive linemen.

Other possibilities: Clemson’s John Simpson, Kentucky’s Logan Stenberg, Georgia’s Solomon Kindley, Washington’s Nick Harris, Michigan’s Michael Onwenu

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