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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Last year’s mandatory minicamp in Owings Mills was only the beginning of a trying season for Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie as he was held out of practices due to conditioning reasons.
The Ravens weren’t happy and the problems multiplied from there as McKinnie reported late to training camp after explaining he suffered a fall outside his Florida home in late July, injuring his back in the process. He wouldn’t regain his standing within the organization for quite some time as coach John Harbaugh replaced him at left tackle with Michael Oher. McKinnie was then nearly cut before the start of the season before agent Michael George and general manager Ozzie Newsome worked out a compromise for a reduced salary that kept him in Baltimore.
McKinnie didn’t start a single regular-season game at left tackle, but it all began to change after a December conversation with Harbaugh in which the two cleared the air over their respective expectations. McKinnie’s practice performance improved over the final few weeks of the regular season and he was eventually inserted in the starting lineup for the start of the postseason.
The rest was history as McKinnie’s exceptional play not only protected quarterback Joe Flacco’s blindside but reshuffled an offensive line that was dominant throughout the Ravens’ run to a Super Bowl title. McKinnie carried that momentum into the offseason with an eventual return on a two-year contract and a healthy and productive spring participating in organized team activities and the mandatory minicamp without any limitations.
“This time last year, I didn’t even participate, so yeah, I definitely feel a lot better in minicamp,” said McKinnie, who admitted how difficult most of last season was for the 33-year-old lineman. “You just have a lot going on mentally, but right now, I’m more focused so I can have a good year and be the best left tackle in the league.”
It’s a lofty goal for a player most expected to be long gone this offseason as the Ravens would look to the draft and potential free-agent options for a long-term solution at left tackle. A late draft position and limited cap space made that a difficult proposition as the Ravens completed draft weekend with left guard Kelechi Osemele projected to be their starting left tackle.
Meanwhile, McKinnie began receiving interest from the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers, taking free-agent visits and receiving offers from both teams before the Ravens jumped back into the picture. All along, McKinnie had remained in touch with Harbaugh, Oher, and new run-game coordinator Juan Castillo as he faced an uncertain future entering his 12th NFL season.
And after looking like he’d be one of the least likely of the Ravens’ many unrestricted free agents to return, he became the only one of significance to stay put in an offseason filled with changes.
“I always wanted to give the Ravens an option to match whatever other teams offered,” McKinnie said. “So I would tell my agent to check back to see what the Ravens have going on and we’ll decide from there.”
Less than a week after the draft, McKinnie agreed to a two-year deal with a reported base value of $6.3 million and $2 million in guaranteed money.
However, Harbaugh laid out the challenge that he was looking forward to seeing McKinnie come to work during offseason workouts as well as OTAs now that it was certain he’d be returning for a third season. The Baltimore coach provided positive reviews Thursday when asked whether his veteran tackle had lived up to his end of the bargain.
“He moved really well in this camp,” Harbaugh said. “As well as he moved at the end of the year last year when he started practicing so well and playing so well. He looks healthy, and he will continue to work on his conditioning. That’s always for all of us, that’s always a year-round, life-round proposition. He seems to be very committed. I love the way he’s playing and his effort.”
The addition of Castillo to the coaching staff has received plenty of praise from players and fellow coaches as the former Philadelphia Eagles assistant will not only oversee the running game but work with offensive line coach Andy Moeller to instruct an offensive line returning four of its five starters from last year’s postseason.
Castillo’s offseason communication isn’t the only way in which McKinnie has been impressed.
“He focuses on our technique, and that’s something that I kind of get away from sometimes,” McKinnie said. “Right now is a great time for us to work on our technique and me in pass protection – sitting straight back. Juan’s been a great help.”
McKinnie said Thursday he feels like he’s 26 and is out to prove that he is capable of performing at a high level for more than just the four-game stretch that helped the Ravens win their second world championship.
The 2002 first-round pick wants to prove he’s the best in the NFL at his position. And he knows exactly what it will take to go about proving it.
“When people turn on film, they’ll just see that I’m dominating,” McKinnie said. “I just feel that I’m going to do better than everybody else this year.”
Whether that lofty goal is realistic or not remains to be seen, but the Ravens will eagerly take the kind of play they saw last January and February from their starting left tackle.