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Osemele biggest key to Ravens fixing offensive line

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Osemele biggest key to Ravens fixing offensive line

Posted on 04 June 2014 by Luke Jones

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.

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Harbaugh “very concerned” with Ravens’ off-field problems

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Harbaugh “very concerned” with Ravens’ off-field problems

Posted on 29 May 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens experiencing their most embarrassing offseason in recent memory, you could hardly blame head coach John Harbaugh for being happy to get his team back on the practice field.

Convening for the first week of organized team activities, the Ravens not only look to bounce back from their first non-playoff season of the Harbaugh era but now face questions about leadership and a perceived lack of control at the top with four players being arrested over the last four months. Running back Ray Rice’s domestic violence case understandably garnered the most attention, but Harbaugh seemed to be speaking to a number of individuals when asked about dealing with such a tumultuous offseason following Thursday’s practice.

In addition to Rice, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, offensive lineman Jah Reid, and rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro were all arrested this offseason to bring further humiliation to an organization regarded as one of the finest in the NFL.

“I’m very concerned, always concerned,” Harbaugh said. “We talk to those guys all the time, and I’m disappointed in some of the silliness that’s going on. Guys are young, but … it’s not like you’re your 22- and 23-year-old buddies. You’re not in the same position that they’re in. You have to grow up faster than your pals, so you can’t go home and run around with your pals and think you’re in the same place that they’re in.”

A trimmer Rice was present and participating in Thursday’s practice less than a week after his public statements that were met with much negative reaction. The 27-year-old still awaits a potential fine and suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell after he was accepted into a pretrial intervention program last week to avoid prosecution on a third-degree aggravated assault charge in the state of New Jersey.

Harbaugh wasn’t present for Rice’s media session last Friday but acknowledged he’d read the statement and said he appreciated what the running back had to say.

“When he used the term, ‘failed miserably,’ that hit home with me,” Harbaugh said. “But like all those guys, it’s what you do going forward. That’s what everybody is going to take a look at it.”

Harbaugh acknowledged an increased effort to talk about off-field problems with players this spring and left the door open to making changes in the structure of training camp in terms of curfews and the structure for veterans if necessary.

Following the news of Taliaferro’s arrest in Williamsburg, Va. earlier this week, Harbaugh took some liberty in sending a message to the 2014 fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. Taliaferro was arrested for public drunkenness and destruction of property, two misdemeanor charges, after punching out the window of a taxicab.

“We’ve had some conversations since what happened, but we also ran 18 full gassers out there together on Tuesday when we got back, and it was pretty hot,” Harbaugh said. “Was that punishment? No, I was going to do the workout anyway, but I needed some company. He needed to keep up with me.”

The Ravens can only hope the off-field headaches have come to an end with the structure of the third phase of the offseason training program upon players, but the front office and coaching staff will again hold their breath at the conclusion of their mandatory minicamp on June 19, which will leave roughly five weeks of free time for players before the start of training camp in late July. This is generally the time of year in which NFL teams are most concerned with players running afoul of the law.

Asked about alcohol being a common theme in players’ off-field issues, Harbaugh took the notion of drinking responsibly in public a step further by questioning whether highly-trained professional athletes are really helping themselves or their team by going out and consuming alcohol in the first place.

“Discipline is not like a light switch,” Harbaugh said. “You can’t just walk out of this building and all of the sudden turn it off and then go back here and turn it on. Football discipline is a way of life. Football discipline, life discipline — it’s all the same thing.”

Offensive line update

Much focus will be on the revamped offensive line throughout the summer as the Ravens try to improve the league’s 29th-ranked unit from a year ago.

Acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2015 fifth-round pick, center Jeremy Zuttah worked with the starting offense Thursday and has made a favorable impression with the coaching staff as the Ravens try to implement offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-stretch blocking scheme. Zuttah is expected to replace incumbent Gino Gradkowski at the center position as Baltimore struggled up the middle last season.

“He’s smart — really smart, really mature [and] goes about his business in a mature way,” said Harbaugh about Zuttah. “I’m just very impressed with how smart he is. He’s very quick. He’s about 305, 306 pounds. He looks good physically in there. But he can move, so we’ll see. It’s going to be interesting to watch him play to see if he can prove himself.”

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2014

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2014

Posted on 20 January 2014 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off an 8-8 season and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it’s easy to conclude that the organization needs more from everyone with a vested interest in 2014.

However, with a limited amount of cap space and only so many holes that can be filled through the draft and free agency, the Ravens will lean heavily on a handful of young players already on the roster to emerge and make a difference with another year of experience under their belts.

Here’s a look at five young players the Ravens will need more from in order to bounce back from an underwhelming 2013 campaign:

1. LB Courtney Upshaw

Veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil received the most attention for their second-half slides, but Upshaw did little to establish himself as a force within the Baltimore defense in his second NFL season. The 2012 second-round pick once again battled weight and conditioning issues in the spring and summer before serving as the strong-side outside linebacker in the base defense while Dumervil took his place in passing situations. Upshaw played fewer defensive snaps — down to 650 from 762 a year earlier — with Dumervil’s arrival in 2013, but his tackle total declined from 60 as a rookie to just 30 and he continued to offer little as a pass rusher or in coverage. With Suggs’ future with the organization up in the air and Dumervil recently turning 30, the Ravens need younger players such as Upshaw and 2013 fourth-round pick John Simon to become real factors if the defense is to continue to build on the progress it made this past season.

2. RB Bernard Pierce

If someone had told you before the 2013 campaign that Ray Rice would only rush for 660 yards in a career-worst season, you would have assumed Pierce had taken his job to become the Ravens’ feature back. Instead, the second-year back was even worse in averaging 2.9 yards per carry and gaining just 436 yards for the season. In fairness, both backs dealt with nagging injuries and had an undersized and overmatched offensive line trying to block for them, but it was clear that neither Rice nor Pierce was especially effective in identifying running lanes before they quickly closed shut. Rice will receive more heat going into next season as he enters the third year of his five-year deal signed two summers ago, but Pierce’s underwhelming sophomore campaign has led many to believe the Ravens should be looking for another running back in the middle-to-late rounds of the 2014 draft. Pierce played in all 16 games in his second year, but his durability is still a question mark in terms of handling a bigger workload.

3. DT Brandon Williams

Despite missing the first three games of his rookie season while nursing a toe injury, the 2013 third-round pick appeared to be emerging as a reliable member of the defensive line rotation before winding up inactive in six of the final eight games. Coach John Harbaugh explained that Williams needed some “maturing” and was beaten out by the versatile DeAngelo Tyson for playing time, but it was still disappointing to see the Missouri Southern State product disappear completely in the second half of the season. With Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody good bets to depart via free agency, the Ravens will need Williams to live up to the high expectations they had when he impressed scouts so much at last year’s Senior Bowl. Whether it’s to play Jones’ 3-technique defensive tackle spot or to shift to nose tackle and allow veteran Haloti Ngata more flexibility to move around, the 335-pound Williams is expected to become a consistent contributor along the defensive line in his second season.

4. LB Arthur Brown

The Kansas State product immediately drew comparisons to future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis because he was undersized and very athletic, but Brown only saw 211 defensive snaps in his rookie season, with most of those coming in the nickel package. Listed at 235 pounds but playing lighter than that after being selected in the second round of the draft, Brown showed flashes in pass coverage and as a blitzer, but he must get bigger and stronger to become the three-down linebacker the Ravens envision. With Daryl Smith an unrestricted free agent and Jameel McClain a potential salary cap casualty, Brown is expected to win the Ravens’ weakside inside linebacker job. With so many other positions of need to address and only so many resources, the Ravens need Brown to put in the necessary work in the weight room and to master the defensive playbook to take care of one of the two inside linebacker positions.

5. OL Rick Wagner

It will be interesting to see how the offseason plays out in terms of where Wagner might fit along the offensive line. In a perfect world, the Ravens would probably prefer keeping the 2013 fifth-round pick in a role similar to the one he held last year as an extra tackle-eligible blocker and key reserve, but the sheer number of holes currently on the offensive line might force him into starting duty. As of now, only Marshal Yanda playing right guard appears to be a sure thing with Kelechi Osemele expected to play either left guard or right tackle. The Ravens want to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe and add more size to their interior offensive line, but Wagner might be needed to play either left guard or right tackle if they expend resources at center and left tackle. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo worked extensively with Wagner as a rookie, and his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame and Wisconsin pedigree suggest he has some nice upside, making this offseason an intriguing one in terms of his development.

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Report: Oher not expected to miss significant time with ankle injury

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Report: Oher not expected to miss significant time with ankle injury

Posted on 08 September 2013 by WNST Staff

CBS Sports’ Jason LaCanfora reported Saturday night that Baltimore Ravens OT Michael Oher is not expected to miss significant time because of the ankle injury that forced him to leave Thursday night’s loss to the Denver Broncos.

Oher was injured Thursday when guard Marshal Yanda rolled into his ankle. The team’s former first round pick was unable to return to the game but the CBS report says he is not expected to be out long-term. The Ravens’ next game is Sunday, September 15 against the Cleveland Browns.

After Oher left Thursday night’s game, the Ravens turned to rookie Rick Wagner at right tackle. The 5th round pick out of Wisconsin struggled the rest of the way as the Broncos were able to garner an effective pass rush against Ravens QB Joe Flacco. The Ravens had only seven offensive lineman active for the Week 1 defeat, as G/T Jah Reid was scratched before the game.

The CBS report did not say whether or not it was believed that Oher would be ready in time for the Week 2 game against Cleveland. If he is not, the Ravens could turn back to Wagner or could use Reid at LG and move second year lineman Kelechi Osemele to right tackle.

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