The Ravens are just over 10 days away from revealing their Week 1 offensive line that’s been discussed at great length since the mid-March retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda.
The cancellation of preseason games in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has left more mystery than usual for outsiders, but decisions on the interior line — potentially at all three positions — and the swing tackle role are close. All we know for sure is that 2019 Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. will line up at left tackle and right tackle respectively.
“We’re honed in pretty well, I would say,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “There are still some things we need to talk about. We have a couple more practices before game week, so we’ll be there game week. I’m sure we’ll be there game week, but I wouldn’t say we’re 100 percent there yet.”
The status of center Matt Skura has yet to be determined as he’s mostly practiced on a limited basis since passing his physical and being removed from the active physically unable to perform list on Aug. 16, the eve of the start of open workouts. That Skura returned to the practice field less than nine months after sustaining a torn ACL, PCL, and MCL as well as a dislocated kneecap is an admirable accomplishment itself, but whether he’s fully ready from a football standpoint remains up for debate.
Skura being healthy enough to play and healthy enough to succeed are different standards, especially with other viable options available at the center spot.
“We still have a little more time to determine that,” Harbaugh said. “We have more practices, so we’ll keep looking at that. He did well [in last Saturday’s scrimmage]; he had no hiccups, no issues. We’re just going to keep pushing him forward with some more challenging things each day, and we’ll know by next week where he’s at.
“Matt will know where he’s at as much as anything. He’s the guy who’s in that body, and the knee is attached to him. We’ll see how he’s doing with it as we get close to the game.”
If the Ravens determine Skura isn’t ready to return to the starting role against Cleveland on Sept. 13, it’s at least worth noting the 2020-only injured reserve rules that allows an unlimited number of return designations. Any player placed on IR after final cut-down day — he must be on the initial 53-man roster — would be eligible to return after only three games rather than the usual eight-game minimum. The relaxing of the IRs rules and the expanded 16-player practice squad were designed to keep more players available to teams during the pandemic.
There’s also the question of who would play center in his place with the simplest solution being second-year lineman Patrick Mekari, who filled in admirably as an undrafted free agent last season. However, Baltimore has left open the possibility of left guard Bradley Bozeman moving over to center, the position he played at the University of Alabama. Bozeman is the only lock to start somewhere on the interior line, but moving him from the position at which he started every game last year would leave the Ravens with a different starter at all three interior spots, which seems less than ideal for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
But the Ravens value versatility, especially in a game-day setting when teams don’t have an active backup for all five starting positions.
“If you look at our guys, you probably have noticed we’ve been moving all those guys around in different spots,” Harbaugh said. “It helps us to determine really how we want to go into the first game, but it’s also going to bode well for the future having flexibility to move guys around when needed to different positions.”
Whatever happens with Skura, Bozeman, and Mekari potentially impacts the center and left guard spots, but that still leaves us wondering who will assume the spot of Yanda, a potential Hall of Famer who can’t truly be replaced. The clear favorite at right guard has been veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker with younger options not appearing to seriously challenge the former first-round pick for much of the summer, but there’s been some late momentum for third-round rookie Tyre Phillips, who was a left tackle at Mississippi State.
Like Fluker, who began his NFL career at right tackle, Phillips has shown the positional flexibility to be valuable on game day. The Ravens need to determine their backup plans at each tackle spot after veteran swing tackle James Hurst was released back in March, but journeymen Will Holden and Parker Ehinger are far from roster locks, leaving open the possibility of in-game shuffling such as Brown moving to the left side and Fluker kicking out to right tackle in the event of an injury.
Whether the 6-foot-5, 344-pound Phillips starts or is an active reserve, he’s clearly stood out among other young options such as fourth-round rookie Ben Bredeson and 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers.
“He’s a good football player — I think that’s the main thing,” Harbaugh said. “We saw the ability to play guard or tackle. I think he can play on the right side or the left side. He’s just a really versatile type of player. He’s a good athlete. He bends well. He’s smart — very smart. He comes from a great family.
“He has a really good demeanor about him. He doesn’t get down on himself at all; he really just pushes through it and learns from his mistakes.”