Ryan Jensen becomes first Ravens free agent to bolt, Buccaneers make him NFL's highest-paid center

Ryan Jensen was released by the Ravens once and he seemingly spent a good chunk of his time with the team on the proverbial roster bubble. Even heading into 2017 training camp, there was an outside perception that Jensen was behind John Urschel at center on the Ravens’ depth chart.

Urschel surprisingly retired on the eve of the first training camp practice and Jensen wound up starting all 16 games for the Ravens while becoming a fan favorite for his aggressive, play-through-the-whistle style. Jensen parlayed his breakout season into a lucrative free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who made the former Raven the highest-paid center in the NFL.

Jensen’s agent, Mike McCartney, announced the agreement on his Twitter account. According to reports, Jensen’s deal is a four-year pact worth $42 million and includes $22 million in guaranteed money.

Jensen had taken free-agent visits to both the Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts before agreeing to the deal with Tampa Bay. He’s the first of 10 Ravens unrestricted free agents to sign elsewhere.

Jensen, 26, was considered one of the top centers on the free-agent market despite making just 16 starts at the position, all in 2017. He also started nine total games at guard for the Ravens in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

The Ravens were resigned that Jensen was going to be out of their price range once the Green Bay Packers signed their starting center, Corey Linsley, to a three-year, $25.5 million deal in late December. That deal essentially set the market for the available centers this offseason.

The Ravens have starting guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis returning from injury and Ronnie Stanley is entrenched at left tackle. James Hurst, the team’s starting left guard last year after Lewis went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, re-signed earlier this week. Hurst and Lewis are options to start at right tackle for Austin Howard, whose 2018 contract option was declined earlier this week.

But Jensen’s departure leaves the Ravens with a void in the middle of their offensive line after team officials talked earlier in the offseason about solidifying the group in front of veteran quarterback Joe Flacco.

Matt Skura, who started 12 games at guard with Yanda sidelined last year, started 40 games at center while at Duke, and he’s the likely replacement. Nico Siragusa, a fourth-round draft pick last year who missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury, is a natural guard, but team officials said after drafting him that they believe he has center capabilities. The Ravens also could decide to address the position either in the draft or free agency.

Jensen was one of only two Ravens offensive linemen who started all 16 games at the same position last year. Jensen played well, finishing as the ninth-highest-ranked center, according to Pro Football Focus.

He was a key part of an unsung offensive line that allowed just 27 sacks all season. Only six teams gave up fewer. The Ravens also had a respectable running attack, averaging 116 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 11th in the NFL.

With his long, bushy hair and his cantankerous on-field demeanor, Jensen became a popular figure with the fans and his toughness and work ethic won over his teammates. His propensity to mix it up in training camp practices lead to quite a few scraps over the past couple of years, but his teammates respected how he stuck up for them and played with physicality.

Those characteristics were on display against the Miami Dolphins last October when Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso connected with a head shot on a sliding Flacco who was concussed on the play. Jensen slammed Alonso to the ground, resulting in a post-play fight.

Jensen was a sixth-round pick by the Ravens out of Colorado State-Pueblo in 2013. He was inactive for all 16 games as a rookie. Jensen was then waived before the start of the 2014 season. However, he re-signed to the team’s practice squad and ultimately was promoted to the active roster, playing one game in December.

Jensen credits getting diagnosed with sleep apnea during his rookie season with saving his career.

He made his first start in a victory against the St. Louis Rams in November 2015 and he wound up starting six games that year. He then made three starts at guard in 2016 before moving to center the following year.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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