It is no surprise. The Ravens enter training camp with major questions on the offensive line.
After last season, Ben Grubbs signed a 5-year deal with the Saints for $36 million. The Ravens’ first round pick in 2007, he was an impact starter immediately and developed into one of the league’s better left guards.
In response, the Ravens pursued free agent Evan Mathis, but he re-signed with the Eagles. The Ravens next looked to Jah Reid. Although drafted in 2011 to play either right or left tackle, he was switched to left guard this offseason by necessity. The front office, however, wasn’t content with just Reid on the depth chart; therefore, the Ravens drafted Kelechi Osemele from Iowa State in the second round and Gino Gradkowski from the University of Delaware in the fourth round.
Still unsatisfied with their crop of left guards, the Ravens signed veteran Bobbie Williams. Formerly a second round pick of the Eagles, he has played the last eight seasons in Cincinnati. At age 35, Williams should start and bring much-needed experience to the position.
Granted, Williams’ injury history may be an issue. He missed the final month of last season, after breaking his ankle against the Texans. Moreover, he has played right guard exclusively in 13 years in the NFL, and the Ravens must be concerned about his ability to adapt to a new position so late in his career.
Yet, Williams was solid in Cincinnati last season. The Bengals’ offense relied heavily on the passing game last year, and he helped the Bengals allow just 25 sacks. Only three other teams gave up fewer sacks all season. The Ravens, meanwhile, allowed a whopping 11 sacks in the playoffs alone.
Although right guard Marshall Yanda was injured toward the end of last season, he was the most consistent member of the unit in 2011. Expect Yanda to once again anchor the offensive line in 2012.
Right tackle Michael Oher, on the other hand, struggled at times and has yet to fulfill the promise of a first round pick. He cut down on his false start penalties in 2011, but Oher needs to improve his pass protection; he seemed to get man-handled at times.
On the left side, tackle Bryant McKinney began his career in Baltimore on a high note. He was terrific in Week 1, shutting down All-Pro James Harrison in a win over the Steelers. As the season progressed, however, he had difficulty stopping speedy edge rushers – perhaps because of his continued weight issues. The Ravens are working with him to increase his stamina and hope that a slimmer McKinney can be even more effective in 2012.
Center Matt Birk, who at age 35 reportedly considered retiring after 2011, returns for his third season in Baltimore. A 6-time Pro Bowler with Minnesota, he was a positive contributor two years ago who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in August 2011. Although he has yet to miss a game for the Ravens, Birk wore down at the end of last season.
Especially in pass protection, Birk seemed slow off the ball and frequently fell victim to the bull rush. After struggling against the Texans in the divisional playoffs, he was dominated by the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork in the AFC Championship Game.
One of the benefits of drafting Gino Gradkowski is his flexibility to also play center and back up Birk. The Ravens know that Birk’s best days are behind him, and he is probably the most shaky 30-something member of the offensive line.
Sure, Flacco often gets blamed for the offense’s inconsistency, but last year’s playoffs should remind us how important an effective offensive line really is.