INDIANAPOLIS — It has been almost 20 years since the Ravens used their first-ever NFL draft pick on mammoth UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. With the selection, the Ravens established their draft philosophy of taking the best player available, prioritizing function over flash, long-term stability over immediate need.
Talents like Ogden, Tony Boselli, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace made drafting a bookend offensive tackle one of the safest propositions in the first round, but those days are long over. Recent drafts are littered with offensive line busts, as the proliferation of fast-paced, spread offenses in college has made tackles harder to project at the next level.
"All the way throughout the National Football League, I think everybody is concerned about offensive line play," Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Ravens officials, pondering how to use the sixth overall pick, have voiced no such public concerns. But it is perhaps telling that rather than relying on the draft to find either a starting left tackle or an heir apparent to right tackle Rick Wagner — a free agent in 2017 — the Ravens have made an "aggressive" offer to retain Kelechi Osemele.
Osemele, 26, a pending unrestricted free agent who has played mostly left guard in his career, has started four games over four seasons at left tackle, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that's likely the position he would play should he return.
"That's something we talked about from the day he got drafted here, that he could play left tackle. And then the opportunity came up to put him here," Harbaugh said Thursday. "I think we'll figure it out, but I like him at left tackle."
If Osemele doesn't return, the Ravens will need to find a way to solidify Joe Flacco's blind side, especially with the quarterback coming off season-ending knee surgery. Eugene Monroe, who signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal in March 2014, hasn't been able to stay healthy. James Hurst was overmatched at times last season after replacing an injured Monroe. De'Ondre Wesley is still considered a project.
That has led many draft pundits to predict that the Ravens will use the sixth overall pick on Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley, considered the second-best offensive tackle in the draft. Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil is the favorite to be taken No. 1 overall by the Tennessee Titans.
Stanley is regarded as polished and NFL-ready, but if the Ravens take him at No. 6, he would have to break a recent pattern of uninspiring play by offensive linemen taken in the top 10. The list of early-draft disappointments includes the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Fisher (first overall, 2013), the Jacksonville Jaguars' Luke Joeckel (second, 2014), the Arizona Cardinals' Jonathan Cooper (ninth, 2013) and St. Louis Rams' Greg Robinson (second, 2014).
According to Sports Illustrated, of the 17 offensive tackles picked in the top 10 since 2005, only three — the Cleveland Browns' Joe Thomas, Dallas Cowboys' Tyron Smith and Miami Dolphins' Jake Long — have been named first-team All-Pro.
"There is a little bit of development once you get to the league," Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, a former Ravens assistant coach, said at the scouting combine Wednesday. "I think that's the biggest part of it. You're still getting big, strong, talented young men with feet to move and the ability to play.
"But maybe their development isn't as far along as it was when colleges were more closely aligned with what we're doing in the NFL."
Coaches and executives attribute that to the number of college teams running spread offenses. In such attacks, most linemen start in two-point stances — often in wider sets — rather than with their hand on the ground, as they'll do in the NFL. Quarterbacks are asked to get the ball out quickly, so college linemen usually aren't asked to pass-block for long. In college, offensive linemen don't do much combination (double-team) run-blocking, but that changes in the pros.
Fast-paced college offenses put a premium on in-shape and mobile linemen, so technique and strength can get overlooked.
"You're drafting a guy right now coming out of some colleges that haven't been in a three-point stance since high school, and you're going to pay him a ton of money. You have to teach him to get in a three-point stance and run-block," Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "It's fundamentals that we're going back on now and have to teach. We never had to teach it before. The athletes are much, much better, but the fundamentals are worse than they've ever been."
In April, the forward-thinking Cardinals used the 24th overall pick in the draft on Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries. He wasn't active for a single game in his rookie season despite being healthy throughout.
"We drafted D.J. last year knowing we were going to redshirt him because we had so much to teach him," Arians said. "If we threw him out there, he was going to fail. Once they fail, it's hard to get those scars off. He didn't dress a game, purposefully, just to get better and better."
The Ravens might not have that luxury if they're unable to reach an agreement with Osemele. Stanley likely wouldn't need a redshirt year, nor would fellow projected first-round tackles Jack Conklin of Michigan State and Taylor Decker of Ohio State.
Indiana's Jason Spriggs, Texas Tech's Le'Raven Clark, Western Michigan's Willie Beavers and Texas A&M's Germain Ifedi are potential second-day offensive tackles.
Notes: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, regarded as the top pass rusher in the draft, said in an NFL Network interview Sunday that he had a formal interview with the Ravens during the Senior Bowl. … Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper (City) ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds, the fastest time among defensive linemen.