With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.
Below is a look at the competition for the right guard job:
Who will replace eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda? OK, there’s no “replacing” a future Hall of Famer, so who will assume the right guard position?
If Matt Skura doesn’t look like himself after last November’s knee injury, what happens at center?
How does the left guard spot look if Bradley Bozeman ends up sliding over to center?
Is veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker a favorite to start due to seven years of starting experience in the NFL, or will a younger option surprise coaches despite the absence of in-person workouts this spring?
So many questions have only been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the normal offseason program as well as preseason games. The only given here is that Yanda won’t be walking through the door after shedding more than 60 pounds since playing his final game in January.
Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris will have his hands full with the evaluation process this summer.
“The opportunity is there, and somebody has to grab the brass ring, so to speak, and go for it,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in June. “Not just one, but multiple guys because you can never have enough really in that interior offensive line where things happen so quick. Continuity does matter because guys are working together with all that quickness down on the inside.
“It’s going to be a competition, a process, a day-to-day process, and I like where we’re at. Once we get out there, we’ll kind of see where it goes.”
The post-draft addition of Fluker, 29, appeared to raise the floor of an unproven group of starting candidates, but the 2013 first-round pick from Alabama graded an underwhelming 51st among qualified guards in 2019 and ranked no better than 45th in each of the last four seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. His familiarity with D’Alessandris dating back to their days with the San Diego Chargers should ease the transition to his new team, but Fluker is only now having the opportunity to get acclimated in person.
Patrick Mekari was one of the surprises of the 2019 season filling in for the injured Skura down the stretch, but the former undrafted free agent from Cal-Berkeley could also receive looks at guard in addition to competing with the incumbent at the center position. Starting the final five regular-season games and last January’s playoff loss gives him an experience edge over other young linemen, but so many coaches and veterans over the years have noted how important that first post-rookie offseason is for a young offensive lineman’s development.
That same challenge applies to 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, who played well in his only game action in the regular-season finale. The 6-foor-4, 310-pound guard may have the most upside of the young linemen, but his lack of playing time as a rookie still makes him a wildcard.
Rookies Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson were selected in the third and fourth rounds respectively in April’s draft, but counting on a mid-round rookie to start is a risky proposition even under normal circumstances. Head coach John Harbaugh suggested Phillips will also take reps at offensive tackle with Baltimore not having a clear backup for Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. after the release of James Hurst in March and Andre Smith’s recent decision to opt out of the 2020 campaign.
But the uncertainty extends beyond right guard with Skura beginning training camp on the active physically unable to perform list. His hard work and progress recovering from a multi-ligament tear has been encouraging, but how his surgically-repaired knee responds to football activity remains to be seen. Team officials are open to the possibility of moving Bozeman to center — the position he played at Alabama — but that would leave the Ravens with different starters at all three interior line spots from a year ago.
To be clear, this is an offense that made opponents look foolish on the way to setting an NFL single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards last year. The presence of generational rushing quarterback and 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson, two Pro Bowl offensive tackles, and Roman’s innovative run-first system should alleviate concerns about right guard, but that doesn’t mean replacing Yanda will be an easy task, especially if Skura’s health prompts further shuffling inside.
There’s no shortage of candidates who may prove to be up to the task, but the Ravens identifying the best starting five is their most important objective of the summer.