Keeping Kelechi Osemele a challenge for Ravens after Marshal Yanda's extension

Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sept. 20, 2015 in Oakland, Calif.
Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sept. 20, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Ravens offensive guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele had spoken about their respective contract situations before and they had a mutual understanding.

They loved playing together and they would be supportive of each other. But when it came down to deciding their futures with the Ravens as they entered the final year of their contracts, each of them was on their own.


"That's his business and that's his privacy, and I respect that," Yanda said. "That's between him and the Ravens. I'm not going to get between that."

Last Friday, Yanda reported to the Ravens' facility and he would soon put his name on a four-year, $37.4 million contract extension that increased his chances of playing with the same franchise for his entire career. But before making it official, he wanted one of his teammates to hear the news.


"I was pretty much the first to know," Osemele said Thursday. "Kudos, man. There's not a guy in the league that deserves it more than Marshal does, honestly. I might be biased, but I think he's the best offensive lineman in the game — hands down, without question. I go out there and try to emulate what he does."

Osemele, one of the top young guards in the NFL, says that he hasn't given much thought to how Yanda's deal affects his own situation. The 26-year-old insists he pays his agent to worry about such matters, and Osemele has far too much on his plate already, mainly helping to lift the Ravens out of a 1-5 hole.

"I'm not an expert when it comes to that stuff," Osemele said. "… I kind of just play football."

As one of the most introspective players in the Ravens' locker room, Osemele surely understands the way the NFL works. Teams willingly pay top dollar for left tackles, who protect the franchise quarterback's blind side and often deal with the opponent's top pass rusher.

The top offensive guards — the best of the best — get rewarded pretty handsomely, too. However, there aren't too many teams who can afford — or are willing — to give both of their starting offensive guards big money. The Ravens, who annually face a tight salary-cap situation and have a host of financial decisions to make this offseason, seem less equipped to do it than most, even with a player as talented as Osemele.

Yanda, 31, became one of the NFL's highest-paid guards with his new deal, which includes nearly $18 million in guaranteed money. Osemele figures to also become one of the best compensated players at the position if he hits the open market in March. Last year's top free-agent guards — Mike Iupata and Orlando Franklin — got $22.5 million and $20 million in guaranteed money respectively.

"[The Ravens] went for the certain thing as opposed to the guy that could potentially be greater. It was taking a more conservative approach," said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes about contracts and the salary cap for National Football Post. "You could say that Yanda's been the best guard in football. It's kind of hard not to re-sign that guy. It's not like he's 35. What you do is you more or less set the ceiling. If you're going to keep internal salary consistency, he's got to be the highest-paid guard."

Teams certainly have given two guards big contracts before. The New Orleans Saints made Jahri Evans and former Raven Ben Grubbs two of the highest-paid guards in football. They've since had to rework Evans' contract and they traded Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs this past offseason to gain salary relief.

The Green Bay Packers, one of the NFL's model franchises, signed left guard Josh Sitton to a six-year, $34.95 million pact, and right guard T.J. Lang to a four-year, $20.8 million deal. The Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers also have a lot invested in their interior offensive linemen.

However, other teams seemingly make a choice. The San Francisco 49ers let Iupati leave as a free agent last offseason with the hope of signing guard Alex Boone, who could be a free agent following this season. Boone, Osemele and Brandon Brooks of the Houston Texans would be three of the top guards available.

"Most teams, if they're going to invest money in multiple players at a position, will pay two tackles over two guards. But that being said, the Ravens don't have a ton of priority guys to re-sign, which cuts in [Osemele's] favor," Corry said. "You may stick a franchise tag on [Justin Tucker] if you can't sign him to a long-term deal. Other than that, you really don't have anyone that you have to sign. You don't have to sign Courtney Upshaw.

"The idea is to pay your best players. So if your best players are concentrated in one area, then you're going to make an allowance there and you're going to have to cut corners elsewhere. Look at Seattle — they're paying three-fourths of their secondary. Kam Chancellor, who thinks he's underpaid, is one of the highest-paid strong safeties. Earl Thomas is the highest-paid free safety and Richard Sherman is on top of the cornerback market. There's no blue print in terms of, 'We have to allocate this much money to the offensive line.' There's more than one way to skin a cat."


This offseason, the Ravens need to rework franchise quarterback Joe Flacco's contract, which currently carries a cap hit of just under $29 million in 2016. They badly need to add playmakers on offense, especially with wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. still saying he plans to retire. Their defense, which ranks 25th in the NFL heading into Monday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, needs reinforcements as well.

The Ravens also drafted guard/center John Urschel in the fifth round last year and he played well during his rookie season as a spot starter, so they have some interior offensive line depth. However, Osemele, a second-round pick in 2012 and a starter on a Super Bowl-winning team in his rookie season, would still be a significant loss.

"Gosh, he's a great player," Yanda said. "I hope we can keep him. He's working his tail off. That's the business side of it, to where they have to work that out. But I want the best for him and his family, and you want the best for the Ravens, too. I hope they can make that work for both parties."

Osemele had big goals heading into the season, telling anybody who would listen that he wanted to be selected for his first Pro Bowl. His performance — and that of the Ravens running game — has essentially gotten better each week. He has put himself in line for a lucrative contract, wherever that may be.

"All I really can control is how I play," Osemele said. "I'm not thinking about leaving or staying or anything. I'm kind of just focused on trying to get the season turned around and playing better football every game and improving every week."


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