Who could have imagined Ryan Jensen’s first full season as a Ravens starter would be so profitable?
The 2013 sixth-round pick from Division II Colorado State-Pueblo has become the highest-paid center in the NFL after agreeing to a four-year, $42 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that includes $22 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. It’s quite a difference from a year ago when some wondered why the Ravens even tendered Jensen as a restricted free agent since he’d been a healthy scratch for the final nine games of the 2016 season and had seemingly fallen out of favor.
Winning the starting center job in training camp last summer, Jensen would start all 16 games and ranked ninth among qualified players at the position in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. He was the ideal fit at center in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes, providing a strong anchor inside with both guards frequently pulling to open lanes in the running game. And he did it after projected starting left guard Alex Lewis underwent season-ending shoulder injury in training camp and six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was lost for the year due to a broken ankle in Week 2.
Friday’s lucrative contract was the culmination of an unlikely journey for Jensen, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie after breaking his foot in training camp. He was then cut at the end of the 2014 preseason and spent most of that regular season on the practice squad, only playing a few snaps on special teams at the end of that season. Jensen would finally became a contributor as a reserve offensive lineman over the next two seasons and made a total of nine starts between the two guard positions, but he still hadn’t established himself as a starting-caliber player.
The 6-foot-4, 319-pound lineman entered the spring of 2017 in a competition with the now-retired John Urschel for the starting center job after incumbent Jeremy Zuttah had been released. Putting on some bulk and responding well to new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, Jensen would emerge as a leader on an offensive line that dealt with much adversity because of injuries.
Though no one can fault the Ravens for letting Jensen go at such an extravagant rate after just one full year as a starter, this marks the third straight offseason in which they’ve watched an above-average offensive lineman leave for a lucrative contract elsewhere after Kelchi Osemele did it in 2016 and Rick Wagner departed last year. Jensen’s exit also opens an all-too-familiar hole at center, a position at which the Ravens have struggled since the post-Super Bowl XLVII retirement of Matt Birk. It remains unknown what the organization’s plans are at the position, but Matt Skura would seem to be the top in-house candidate unless the Ravens were to do more radical line shuffling.
The offense will also miss Jensen’s attitude as he wasn’t afraid to play through the whistle — and sometimes after it — and provided toughness for a unit with a number of quieter personalities. The 26-year-old garnered praise from Ravens fans in Week 8 after he went after Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso for his penalized blow to the head of concussed quarterback Joe Flacco. Once describing himself as an “annoying little mosquito” on the field, Jensen would also ruffle the feathers of his defensive teammates from time to time in practice.
“He gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s a great competitor, and you want that kind of play with all your players, especially on the o-line. He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware.
“Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better because you’re protecting yourself.”
Jensen is the second 2017 starter on the Baltimore offensive line to depart after right tackle Austin Howard was let go before the start of free agency.