Ravens have much work to do to replace the “irreplaceable”

April 07, 2020 | Luke Jones

Four weeks after eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda announced his retirement, the Ravens have yet to address the right guard position.

That’s hardly surprising with few appealing options hitting the free-agent market last month, but that’s not to suggest the Ravens are nonchalant about filling the void left behind by one of the best players in franchise history. There’s no easy fix.

“It’s going to be really hard. I think he’s irreplaceable, bottom line,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t say that you’re going to plug in another Marshal Yanda. Probably the same thing applied to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. To me, he’s in that category.”

Unlike those Hall of Famers at the end of their brilliant careers, however, Yanda was still playing very close to his peak level as he was a second-team AP All-Pro selection and Pro Football Focus graded him as the NFL’s fourth-best guard last season. After Super Bowl XLVII, it was pretty clearly time for Lewis to walk away and the Ravens were content watching Houston pay big money for the player Reed no longer was by 2013.

The best in-house comparison might be Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who was still playing at an elite level and had been named to his 11th straight Pro Bowl in 2007 before retiring because of a chronic toe issue. It also serves as a reminder that the sky isn’t falling as the Ravens rebounded from a 5-11 campaign in Ogden’s final season to advance to the AFC Championship in 2008 with the unheralded Jared Gaither manning left tackle. Led by league MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, a Baltimore offense that set numerous team and league records last year isn’t going to collapse without Yanda.

Ultimately, it’s a team sport with few non-quarterbacks providing make-or-break individual value, but Yanda’s elite play, institutional knowledge, and understated leadership will be missed on an offense that’s still very young.

“Taking Marshal out of that equation is not just a one-guy deal,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a force multiplier. He exponentially makes the offensive line better because he makes all the players around him so much better, including the quarterback and the rest of the offensive line. We’re going to have to really do a great job there. That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s probably job one or two. We’ve got to make sure that we do a great job of making sure the interior offensive line is all set.”

With the proper perspective, replacing a Hall of Fame talent doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In the wake of Lewis’ retirement in 2013, the Ravens did strike out with second-round pick Arthur Brown, but the June signing of veteran Daryl Smith brought short-term stability at inside linebacker and first-round pick C.J. Mosley arrived a year later to make four Pro Bowls in five seasons with Baltimore.

Replacing Reed at safety proved more problematic with the Ravens burning through failed draft picks and underwhelming value signings over a three-year period before finally inking Eric Weddle to calm the back end of the secondary in 2016. With Jackson still playing on a rookie contract, the Ravens don’t want to compromise their Super Bowl aspirations by failing to solve the right guard spot to a satisfactory level.

This year’s draft class isn’t littered with first-round-caliber guards, but general manager Eric DeCosta says he sees no shortage of starting-caliber potential, including some offensive tackles who would be good fits to move inside in Baltimore’s system.

“I think we’ve shown in the past that we can find guys in the second, third, fourth, fifth rounds, offensive linemen who can come in and play,” DeCosta said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got a great [offensive line] coach in Joe [D’Alessandris], who can develop younger players. We’ve seen that over and over and over again. We’re excited about that, and we’ll find some guys for sure.”

There isn’t a perfect answer, of course, as second-year guard Ben Powers, an early 2020 draft pick, or even a potential value signing like former Raven Kelechi Osemele cannot be expected to play anywhere near Yanda’s level. The Ravens would be happy with solid and steady.

The cupboard is far from bare along the rest of the offensive line with All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley playing at an elite level last year and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. making the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Center Matt Skura was playing the best football of his career prior to sustaining a serious knee injury in late November while left guard Bradley Bozeman and backup center Patrick Mekari both looked the part of starting-caliber NFL linemen in 2018.

They’ll all need to play a part in filling Yanda’s massive shoes.

“We’ll see what we can do to try to get as close as we can, and the other part of it is that the rest of the guys have to step up,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, every player on offense has to be better without Marshal, especially every player on the offensive line coming back has to be that much better just [for the group] to be the same.

“It’s really going to be on all our shoulders to make that happen. Not just be the same, we’ve got to try to improve. We’ve got a lot of work to do with that.”