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Ravens wait for 'cream' to surface in battle for starting left guard

In Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., the Ravens have a pair of potential Pro Bowl bookend tackles. Marshal Yanda is one of the NFL’s best right guards. Center Matt Skura has the confidence of coach John Harbaugh.

Left guard remains the biggest question mark on the Ravens offensive line.

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Three players — veterans James Hurst and Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Ben Powers — emerged as likely candidates for the starting spot during offseason workouts, and the competition could continue deep into training camp.

“I think that’s how football should be,” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said during mandatory minicamp in June. “I think, give everyone the chance. Between now and our opener, we don’t know what’s going to happen per player. So let’s let each day take its course, and let’s see how each player plays. Usually, the cream surfaces to the top at the very end.”

Among the veterans is Hurst, who has the second-most experience on the line as he heads into his sixth season. Hurst (6 feet 5, 310 pounds) has 42 career starts.

Harbaugh said the team won’t know who is out front in the competition until after the first preseason game.

“For now, we don’t have a leader. It would be James, if there’s anybody. But, that’s an open position,” Harbaugh said.

In 2017, Hurst was the starting left guard for all 16 games, but Alex Lewis took over the position in 2018. Hurst moved to right tackle before injuring his back. While he was out, Brown filled in. Hurst returned for the final month of the season, but he still wasn’t 100%.

Now, Hurst has had time to fully recover, and he’s competing to regain the starting job at left guard.

Hurst has the obvious advantage of experience. He has more years in the NFL than his top two competitors do combined, and he’s started 19 games as a left guard.

“James Hurst has proven he can play in there, and he’ll get reps in there,” Harbaugh said.

Powers (6-4, 310 pounds), a fourth-round draft pick, was an All-American at left guard for Oklahoma and has plenty of experience at the position, starting 33 games. But he said moving to the NFL has shown him he needs to improve every part of his game.

Powers, 22, is the youngest of the group, but he’s picked up the offense quickly, Hurst said.

“He’s a great guy, hard worker, great communicator,” Hurst said. “So that’s put him in a position to get a lot of meaningful snaps.”

“He has some instinctive qualities that sometimes aren’t coached,” D’Alessandris said of Powers. “He can see and react to situations with that innate ability.”

During minicamp, the 6-4, 335-pound Eluemunor played several snaps at left guard with the first-team offense, in part because of Hurst’s previous experience there. Eluemunor played eight games as a rookie in 2017, including two starts at right guard, before being cut and signed to the practice squad last season.

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After being called up at midseason, he appeared in 10 straight games, including a start at left tackle for an injured Stanley.

In his first two training camps, Eluemunor took snaps with the first team at left guard, and he’s shown enough improvement that the Ravens are trying him out there again.

“He’s another big guy that can move and that’s very athletic,” D’Alessandris said. “I just saw continued growth, and I said, ‘Give him a chance.’ ”

Eluemunor’s performance at minicamp was perhaps the best Hurst has seen from him, which will put him in a good position come training camp. But Harbaugh said Eluemunor still needs to get in good enough shape that he can “practice like he needs to practice and play.”

Eluemunor knows that as well, and he said that in the five weeks between minicamp and training camp, he’s going to “go back to Texas, work my butt off and come back in the best shape I can possibly be in.”

Eluemunor also knows the first-team repetitions he earned during minicamp don’t mean anything yet.

“It's about when you get to training camp and you put the pads on,” he said. “When you come back end of July, early August, and we start hitting, that's when it really means something.”

A lot can happen in the five weeks between minicamp and training camp. Players can get themselves in shape, injuries can heal, and new contenders for playing time can begin to emerge.

Undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, for example, missed time at minicamp with “a little back thing,” according to Harbaugh, but is expected to return for training camp. And Lewis, who missed all of the Ravens’ offseason workouts while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, could re-emerge as a potential starter in the final year of his rookie deal.

Many of the team’s offensive linemen, including Powers, Hurst and Eluemunor, can play different positions up front, meaning anyone who’s not already an entrenched starter will be gunning for that opening.

Although the decision won’t be made until well into camp, it’s important to have the starter set as early as possible for the players’ benefit.

“The offensive line is all about chemistry between the five guys,” Hurst said. “You've got to act as one, so the longer you can have a starter in there playing with the left tackle and the center, the better.”

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