OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was a year ago when the only question about Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele was whether he would become a Pro Bowl left guard in his second season in the NFL.
The expectations were high for the 2012 second-round pick after his successful shift to left guard was part of a offensive line shuffle that helped catapult the Ravens in a run to their Super Bowl XLVII championship. Osemele had played admirably at right tackle during his rookie season, but his postseason work inside made most think he was ready to take off in his second year.
Instead, a debilitating back injury led to poor play and, eventually, season-ending surgery while the offensive line crumbled with too many question marks all over. Now recovered and participating fully during voluntary organized team activities this spring, Osemele sees no reason why the lofty goal of making the Pro Bowl should be any different as he returns from surgery to repair a herniated disk.
“That’s always going to be the expectation for me as a player,” Osemele said. “Knowing the ability that I have and my work ethic, I feel like I would be an underachiever if that wasn’t my goal.”
With uncertainty lingering at right tackle after the Ravens re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe and acquired veteran center Jeremy Zuttah this offseason to reshape their offensive line, Osemele is the linchpin of the group as he is currently slated to be the starting left guard. However, his versatility leaves the door open for the third-year lineman to shift back to right tackle should 2013 draft picks Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen fail to play well enough to win the job and general manager Ozzie Newsome chooses not to sign a veteran.
Putting aside the right tackle battle, the Ravens are still putting plenty of faith in Osemele regaining the form of his rookie year, even after the positive reviews and the way he’s looked during spring workouts in which players practice in helmets, jerseys, and shorts. They know the true test won’t come until training camp when players are in full pads and experiencing full contact. The organization will then see how well Osemele holds up against the likes of hefty defensive linemen Haloti Ngata, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Williams in practices.
“As far as explosiveness, it’s hard to gauge that for any player, because we’re not hitting out here,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t think you can really evaluate the power that a guy has, but I don’t doubt that it’s in there with him if you just watch the way he moves. He looks good. He’s going to be a lot better than he was last year.”
The Ravens and Osemele hope his best play has yet to come as he initially sustained the back injury during his collegiate days at Iowa State. The combination of him and Monroe on the left side of the offensive line is formidable on paper as Monroe’s athleticism at the left tackle spot is complemented well by Osemele’s combination of power and agility from the interior.
But the recovering lineman acknowledged the changes he’s been forced to make in his training regimen after last fall’s surgery. He is no longer permitted to perform any lifting over his head or squats as he focuses more closely on core training and flexibility than he did in the past.
The preexisting back condition that he had managed for years worsened last offseason when he trained too hard with thoughts of the Pro Bowl on his mind. And it showed in his diminished performance that was limited to just seven games before he was placed on season-ending injured reserve and underwent surgery in November.
“I didn’t train very smart,” Osemele said. “It was definitely on me [and] the way that I had been training, obviously, without knowledge of how bad that it was and then throughout the season getting those multiple MRIs, and seeing the condition worsen and already being at a point where you have to [play] because you’ve been taking all the reps. I ate up all the reps and then couldn’t play to my ability.”
An offensive line that was already struggling took further lumps with Osemele sidelined as the undersized A.Q. Shipley filled in at left guard next to new starting center Gino Gradkowski, giving the Ravens major problems inside as their running game and pass protection could never get on track during a disappointing 8-8 season.
The question of what player will line up at right tackle isn’t one that figures to be resolved anytime soon, but Osemele’s return to the mix will ease the concerns of the entire organization. The Ravens saw more than enough during his rookie season to feel confident that Osemele can be an anchor of the offensive line as long as the back is no longer an issue.
He said Wednesday that he hasn’t felt this healthy and strong since his first year or two of college.
“He’s back to his usual self, running around,” Monroe said. “[He is] one of the best-conditioned guys on the field, just grinding and trying to get better. We are even having to slow him down a little bit because it has been a while since he played, and we have certain rules we have to follow right now. We’re just working together every day. I’m glad he’s right next to me, I really am.”
On Wednesday, Harbaugh reiterated the preference of Osemele staying at left guard next to Monroe while the Ravens solve the puzzle at the right tackle spot. Even if they don’t find a great answer at that position, there are plenty of ways for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to scheme help in protection to account for vulnerability on the right side.
One weak link on the offensive line can be overcome, but the Ravens cannot afford to be vulnerable at multiple spots like they were last season, making it critical that Osemele is once again the player that dominated defensive linemen in the 2012 postseason while helping the organization win its second Super Bowl title. He’s the most important variable in determining whether the unit makes substantial improvement or once again struggles this season.
Whether it’s ultimately at left guard or right tackle, Osemele needs to be a force.
“We can’t lock ourselves into saying one thing or another, because we just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Harbaugh said. “[Osemele] gives us flexibility because he can move out to tackle, but I sure like the way he and Eugene look over on that left side. That’s the direction we’re heading right now and hopefully we can maintain that course.”
Wednesday OTA attendance
There were more veterans absent for Wednesday’s workout than at last week’s workout that was open to reporters as Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty, and guard Marshal Yanda were not on the field.
Ngata, Suggs, and Canty were the only veterans not present last Thursday.
Defensive tackle Terrence Cody (hip surgery) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf strain) remained sidelined as they continue to rehab injuries. Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) returned to the practice field after he’d been sidelined since his first week with the organization.
Running back Bernard Pierce (shoulder surgery) and rookie defensive end Brent Urban (ankle surgery) were once again practicing after undergoing procedures earlier in the offseason.