Ravens head coach John Harbaugh made it clear Tuesday there is no controversy at left tackle going into the offseason.
A few eyebrows raised when starting left tackle Eugene Monroe was deemed active for Saturday’s game in New England before rookie free agent James Hurst remained the starter against the Patriots, but Harbaugh said the decision was based solely on Monroe’s health. After injuring his ankle in the fourth quarter of the Week 16 loss in Houston, Monroe did not play in the regular-season finale or the Pittsburgh game and was limited to just five special-teams snaps against New England.
Monroe was a limited participant in practices last week leading into the trip to Foxborough.
“Eugene wasn’t 100 percent, but we felt like he was enough to be a good backup for us,” Harbaugh said. “If we lost one of the tackles, we’d probably rather be able to put Eugene in there at less than 100 percent than have to shuffle the offensive line around again. And credit to him for getting himself back into that kind of a position. But as far as playing the left tackle spot the whole game, where [Monroe] was at, James was the better option.”
If Monroe had remained inactive against the Patriots and the Ravens would have lost either Hurst or Marshal Yanda, who was already filling in for the injured Rick Wagner at right tackle, they would have been forced to move left guard Kelechi Osemele out to tackle and insert Ryan Jensen into the game. Instead, the Ravens deemed a banged-up Monroe as a better option to activate than Jensen, who was only promoted to the 53-man roster at the end of the regular season.
Needless to say, it was a disappointing year for Monroe after he signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract last offseason. He missed four games after undergoing knee surgery in late September and never appeared healthy enough to play at the level he did last season when he was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The ankle injury against the Texans all but ended his season, opening the door for Hurst to become the first player in NFL history to start a playoff game at left tackle as an undrafted rookie.
Counting the postseason, the Ravens went 5-2 in games Hurst started at left tackle, leaving some to wonder if the rookie’s performance was good enough to supplant Monroe as the starter. When carefully watching Hurst’s play, it would be more accurate to describe Baltimore as surviving with him at left tackle.
Harbaugh made it clear how he views the depth chart heading into next season.
“Eugene is our starter going forward,” Harbaugh said. “We’re happy to have that be the case.”
Of all offensive tackles who participated in at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps in the regular season, Hurst finished 79th out of 84 and had minus-16.9 pass blocking and minus-9.0 run blocking grades, according to Pro Football Focus’s cumulative assessments. Monroe ranked 63rd out of 84, but his minus-1.0 pass blocking grade and minus-10.7 run blocking grade reflects how much he struggled moving laterally in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking system while not having quite as many issues as a pass blocker. That could certainly be explained by the knee issues he experienced early in the year and then coming back from surgery in the middle of the season.
Monroe will be on notice to bounce back dramatically — especially carrying a $7.7 million cap figure in 2015 — but he also has a track record suggesting he’ll be better with an offseason to once again get healthy.
Even if his performance wasn’t strong enough to seriously make Monroe look over his shoulder, Hurst did establish himself as a solid backup for an offensive line that took major strides in 2014.
“Those experiences I’m going to carry with me and use them to my advantage just to make myself a better football player,” said Hurst of the seven starts he made in his first NFL season. “It’s a huge offseason after your rookie year. You know really what you need to work on to be a better pro.”