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Ravens draft preview: Offensive line needs an interior upgrade — but where, exactly?

The Ravens want road graders up front — “a big, physical offensive line,” was how general manager Eric DeCosta put it in January. But it’s tough to clear a path when there are potholes every quarter-mile.

Marshal Yanda’s retirement last offseason was more like a sinkhole, leaving the Ravens without a capable replacement until Kevin Zeitler’s signing last month. Injuries and inconsistency at center knocked the offense off the road at times in 2020. Ronnie Stanley’s season-ending ankle injury forced another on-the-fly rerouting. Orlando Brown Jr. seems headed for the off-ramp this year or next.

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The Ravens have advanced to the playoffs three years in a row, but a common thread seems to tie their lowest moments in the Lamar Jackson Era: disappointing offensive line play.

“If you don’t have a good offensive line, I don’t think you’re winning any games in this league,” coach John Harbaugh said in January. “It’s very limiting to your offense to be forced to throw the ball in a three-, in a quick five-step rhythm, all the time, and not be able to run the ball. So our offensive line is, to me, a primary piece to what we try to do, and we need to build the very best offensive line that we can.”

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If Brown remains in Baltimore, the Ravens are set at tackle. Stanley is an All-Pro talent, and Brown a two-time Pro Bowl selection. At guard and center, the depth chart is more uncertain. As next week’s NFL draft approaches, the Ravens will again be on the lookout for interior help.

What do the Ravens need at guard and center?

For now, anyway, the Ravens have four starters under contract. Three of them — left tackle Stanley, right tackle Brown and right guard Zeitler — are fixed in place. The fourth, Bradley Bozeman, is the wild card.

Bozeman was a center at Alabama, and DeCosta acknowledged Monday that that’s where the Ravens foresaw him playing in the NFL. But entering the final year of his rookie deal, Bozeman has started 32 straight games at left guard. He could stay there in 2021. Or, with the departure of center Matt Skura and the position’s uncertain depth, he could move over a few feet to his right.

“We’ll assess where we are as an offensive line,” DeCosta said Monday, “and make the best decision moving forward as to where Bradley will play next year.”

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Even before last year’s setbacks, DeCosta had vowed to invest in the offensive line every offseason. That pledge has taken on renewed urgency this month, with the Ravens poised to draft an interior lineman perhaps as early as the first round.

Considering their offensive balance, the Ravens need a guard or center equally capable of protecting Jackson and paving running lanes for him. Greg Roman’s rushing attack is primarily based on power schemes, in which lead blockers clear a path to the second level of the defense by targeting specific defenders, but the Ravens also mix in zone schemes, where linemen block an area or the first defender to show in their gap.

Given their spectrum of needs, there’s a mix of offensive line categories the front office must evaluate. Here’s whom the Ravens could target early in the draft.

True centers

Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey

Why he’d fit: The 6-foot-4, 302-pound Humphrey gave up just two quarterback hits and no sacks over nearly 1,300 pass-blocking snaps in college, according to Pro Football Focus. A former wrestler, he has strong and active hands that help him gain leverage on opponents. With his strong upper body, good intensity and decent movement skills, Humphrey is considered a high-floor prospect. He’s also a two-time team captain with experience handling presnap protection checks.

Why he might not: Humphrey played some guard at the Senior Bowl, but he spent his entire Sooners career at center. Because of his subpar length, he can struggle against long-limbed linemen who don’t allow him to take control in one-on-one matchups. Humphrey had impressive testing numbers at his Pro Day, but he didn’t look often like an elite athlete on tape, especially when playing in space.

Projection: Round 2-3

Ohio State’s Josh Myers

Why he’d fit: The 6-5, 310-pound Myers is one of the best run-blocking centers in the draft. He combines brute-force physicality, short-area quickness and good technique to win one-on-one matchups up front, execute combo blocks and pick off linebackers. With his football IQ and good build, Myers could also handle snaps at guard in the NFL.

Why he might not: Myers doesn’t have exceptional lateral movement, his hands need refinement, and his balance tends to get out of whack, all of which shows up in pass protection. Over the past two seasons, he gave up six sacks and 27 total pressures, according to PFF. Myers’ seek-and-destroy missions, when they failed, also led to bad whiffs in space.

Projection: Round 3-4

True guards

Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis

Why he’d fit: The 6-4, 315-pound Davis plays with a take-no-prisoners mentality and a power that can bury defenders. With his strong hands, good balance and impressive pad level, he’s able to sustain blocks well, whether it’s in displacing a run defender or anchoring against a pass rusher. Davis is quick to move after the snap and has decent mobility in space, and he plays through the whistle.

Why he might not: Davis’ 2020 was considered a step down from his 2019, and he ended the season reinjuring the knee he’d hurt the year before. Davis struggled somewhat with communication issues and his reaction time along the line; the three sacks he allowed last season came on blitz or stunt pickups, according to PFF. His limited athleticism also shows up in his effectiveness as a second-level blocker.

Projection: Round 2-3

Tennessee’s Trey Smith

Why he’d fit: The 6-5, 321-pound Smith started his career at left tackle before moving to left guard in 2019, and because of medical interruptions over his college career, he might not be close to reaching his full potential. He has an NFL-ready frame and remarkable stopping power, with heavy hands that help keep defenders at bay and seal off running lanes. On chip blocks, Smith climbs well enough to be a nuisance for linebackers.

Why he might not: Medical evaluations will be crucial for Smith, who was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs in February 2018. After doctors feared they’d returned that October, his sophomore season ended prematurely. On the field, Smith struggles with his body control, which leads to leverage issues. When he’s on the move, his fundamentals and balance suffer.

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Projection: Round 3-4

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Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks

Why he’d fit: The 6-5, 325-pound Banks is hard to slip past and harder to push back. According to PFF, he allowed only two sacks and four quarterback hits in 38 games, including 30 starts at left guard, controlling defenders with his hands and absorbing blows with ease. In pass protection, he can mirror rushers effectively and consistently. As a run blocker, he can mow linemen over on down blocks. His recently slimmed-down physique could make him more effective in space.

Why he might not: Banks is stronger than he is explosive, which limits his pop as a run blocker. While his strong hands are an asset, his misfires can lead to poor balance and holding penalties. Banks’ heavy feet also hurt him in the Rose Bowl, where he struggled with Alabama’s superior athleticism in a January defeat.

Projection: Round 3-4

Flexible fits

Alabama’s Landon Dickerson

Why he’d fit: The 6-6, 333-pound Dickerson might have the most impressive 2020 highlight reel of any interior lineman in the draft class. According to PFF, his 14 “big-time blocks” tied for the most recorded by a Power Five conference center in a single season since at least 2014. On the field at Alabama, Dickerson developed into a technician with great hands and quick feet. Off the field, he was a well-respected vocal leader.

Why he might not: Can he stay healthy? The Ravens have been largely injury-averse when drafting linemen, and Dickerson suffered four season-ending injuries, including left ACL and right ACL tears, over five seasons at Florida State and Alabama. Dickerson stood out at both guard and center for the Crimson Tide, but wherever he lines up, his shortcomings — average athleticism and less-than-ideal length — will be magnified if he has to play through persistent pain.

Projection: Round 1-2

Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz

Why he’d fit: Meinerz dominated Division III defenses at left guard in 2019, then, after having his 2020 season wiped out by the coronavirus, emerged as the big-bellied star of the Senior Bowl. His athletic testing has only confirmed what he showed on tape in college: The 6-3 Meinerz is powerful. He posted a 32-inch vertical leap at his Pro Day, elite explosiveness for a 320-pound interior lineman. Meinerz might be most impactful as an NFL center, but he should be able to handle guard duties in a power-heavy run-blocking scheme like the Ravens’.

Why he might not: It’s a long walk from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to the AFC North. Meinerz could get away with his eagerness to bury linebackers or disrupt pass rushers in college, but he’ll have little margin for error against NFL defenders. His footwork will also have to improve, and a move to center would come with a steep learning curve.

Projection: Round 2-3

Illinois’ Kendrick Green

Why he’d fit: The 6-2, 305-pound Green tied Dickerson for the Power Five lead among centers in big-time blocks, and he did it in only eight games. He improved every year for the Fighting Illini, developing into an elite run blocker and solid pass blocker by his 2020 season. Green’s quickness off the ball is impressive, and his power helps him wash out linemen on combo blocks. He was versatile enough to play left guard and center last season, with no drop-off in play.

Why he might not: For an interior lineman, Green is short, short-armed and light, so it’s no surprise that he had trouble holding his ground against bigger defenders. He switched over from the defensive side during his redshirt season in 2017, and that inexperience often showed in his processing and technique. Green struggled at times with picking up stunts and blitzes, and he’s likely a better fit for an outside-zone rushing offense.

Projection: Round 3-4

Tackle-to-guard possibilities

Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood

Why he’d fit: The 6-5, 312-pound Leatherwood, the Crimson Tide’s starting left tackle since 2019, already passes the look test, with long, stout arms and a powerful lower half. He’s athletic enough to handle any run scheme, and he tied Dickerson and Green with 14 big-time blocks last season, according to PFF. Leatherwood moves his feet well in pass protection, where his football IQ and impressive 85-inch wingspan also help out.

Why he might not: Leatherwood’s potential as an NFL-level starting tackle might make the Ravens hesitant to move him back to guard, where he started in 2018. He’s not a knock-back run blocker, and he allowed 16 quarterback pressures last season, according to PFF. Quicker defenders gave Leatherwood trouble, and his ability dipped when blocking on the move.

Projection: Round 1-2

Clemson’s Jackson Carman

Why he’d fit: Trevor Lawrence’s blind-side protector for the past two seasons, Carman wins with good size (6-5, 317 pounds), heavy hands, impressive flexibility and a mean streak. He plays with the pop to power a rushing offense like the Ravens’, and he’s hard to move when he sets his anchor in pass protection. While Carman struggled with speed rushes as the Tigers’ left tackle, a move inside would help protect him.

Why he might not: Carman played over 1,800 career snaps at Clemson, all at left tackle. Tyre Phillips’ shaky rookie season was a reminder that no matter how well a college tackle might project as an NFL guard, the transition will be difficult. Carman’s footwork needs improvement, and his inconsistent hand placement could be even more problematic against interior linemen who win with leverage. His playing weight and history of back injuries are also worrisome.

Projection: Round 2-3

NFL DRAFT

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