Ravens positional review: Offensive line

The Ravens entered training camp last year with only two jobs along the offensive line secured. The season that followed was just as unpredictable.

Over the course of the year, their front five struggled early, then excelled with a new quarterback, then imploded in their lone playoff game. But they nonetheless offered hope for a better 2019, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 10th-rated offensive line.


2018 in review

In the preseason, the Ravens knew left tackle Ronnie Stanley would start in the season opener. Beyond that, questions abounded.

Right guard Marshal Yanda had missed most of 2017 after suffering a fractured left ankle, and he was sitting out the team’s five preseason games after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Matt Skura, a former undrafted free agent who hadn’t been promoted to the 2017 team's active roster until mid-September, was being asked to handle center duties after previously starting at right guard.

Alex Lewis was returning from a torn labrum that had sidelined him for the entire 2017 season, and his best position along the line was up for debate.

James Hurst was moving over to right tackle after signing a four-year, $17.5 million contract, but faced a challenge from rookie Orlando Brown Jr.

When the Ravens wrapped up their preseason, the unit charged with protecting quarterback Joe Flacco and opening holes for running back Alex Collins had an unsurprising composition: Stanley, Lewis, Skura, Yanda and Hurst.

The early returns, though, were largely disappointing. Flacco was harassed throughout a Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but he was mostly kept upright, sacked just 12 times in his eights other starts. The problem was the team’s run blocking.

One season after Collins found almost overnight success in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes, the Ravens’ ground game faltered, even with Yanda back and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s added dimension. Coach John Harbaugh insisted that the team would eventually break long runs with Collins and backup Buck Allen. It didn’t.

Then the injuries started. After Hurst hurt his back before the Ravens' Week 7 game against the New Orleans Saints, Brown took over at right tackle. Fellow rookie Bradley Bozeman replaced Lewis, who'd suffered a pinched nerve in the Ravens' previous game. It was the unit’s first new look all season.

But not the last. Over their next four games, the Ravens cycled through four different starting lines, featuring midseason pickup Hroniss Grasu at left guard, practice squad call-up Jermaine Eluemunor at left tackle, and the eventual return of Stanley and Lewis.

By that point, Flacco was out with a hip injury. Jackson had taken over. And the Ravens’ running game was about to take off. In Jackson's first start, the team ran 53 times for 267 yards — more than the combined yardage total of their previous three games.

The line found its rhythm. Even injuries were handled seamlessly. After Lewis, bothered by a shoulder injury, played his final game of a disappointing season in early December, Hurst recovered from a nerve injury in his back in time to take his spot inside.

It wasn’t a dominant unit — Skura and Hurst were occasionally overpowered at the point of attack, and Brown’s aggressiveness led to a few whiffs in open space — but it did feature an All-Pro selection (Yanda), a Pro Bowl alternate (Stanley) and one of the league’s top rookie tackles (Brown).


Which made the Ravens’ final performance of the season all the more disappointing. In their second matchup in three weeks against a Los Angeles Chargers team with fearsome pass rushers but little size up the middle, the team allowed nine tackles for loss.

Whether it was because of poor self-scouting, or maybe bad execution, or perhaps a Chargers defense that matched Jackson's speed with a defensive back-heavy alignment, the Ravens rushed for just 90 yards in a home loss. In their last-gasp attempt at a late comeback, Jackson fumbled after Uchenna Nwosu burst around Brown for the Chargers’ seventh sack. The Ravens didn’t recover.

2019 outlook

It can be no coincidence that both general manager Eric DeCosta and Roman, now the Ravens offensive coordinator, recently underlined the importance of offensive line play to the team’s future. DeCosta said he wants “big, physical, tough, aggressive, nasty, mean offensive linemen”; Roman desires “domination up front and control up front.”

If Yanda returns for his 13th season in Baltimore — he’s under contract but has given no indication either way — the Ravens would have an enviable trio of sure-thing starters. Stanley, despite a bothersome left ankle, finished as a top-20 tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus, while Brown didn’t allow a sack in his 16 appearances (10 starts). Yanda led all guards in regular-season snaps and was again among the NFL’s best at the position.

At left guard and center, the incumbents inspire optimism and concern. Hurst, who struggled mightily in the playoff loss to the Chargers, acknowledged after his midseason layoff that his body felt “fresh” but that he couldn’t lift weights while his back was inflamed. The offseason should help. A move back inside might as well. But the Ravens need more from a player who rated as one of PFF’s worst tackles.

Skura could have to win his starting job again as well. He was reliably available — no center played more snaps last regular season — but a liability at other points. Guards had to help against bigger defensive tackles. Jackson’s quick hands bailed out some wild shotgun snaps. Skura also was rarely asked to pull, a staple of Roman’s run schemes.

Offseason workouts and training camp will be important proving grounds for the Ravens’ other linemen. Can Lewis stay healthy and return to his rookie-year form? Can Bozeman get more consistent and find a full-time position, even in a backup role? Can Eluemunor continue to show he’s more than a practice squad player?


Free-agent options

There are quality players at the Ravens’ interior positions of need, but they won’t be cheap.

Center Matt Paradis, 29, after a strong but injury-shortened year for the Denver Broncos, is in line for a deal that could approach or surpass former Raven Ryan Jensen’s record-setting contract. Mitch Morse, 26, missed part of the Kansas City Chiefs’ season for the second straight year but graded out as a sturdy pass blocker.

At guard, Rodger Saffold, 30, is likely to set the market after nine seasons with the St. Louis and Los Angeles Rams. Ramon Foster is 33 but protected Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger well last year in Pittsburgh. And Andy Levitre has over 140 games of starting experience but is 32, and tore his triceps early in the Atlanta Falcons’ season.