OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have apparently decided on their starting left guard for Sunday’s season opener, but mystery will remain until pre-game warmups in Miami.
After trading initial preseason Jermaine Eluemunor to New England last week, Baltimore has chosen from the group of veteran James Hurst, second-year lineman Bradley Bozeman, and rookies Ben Powers and Patrick Mekari. Reasonable arguments could be made for any of the first three receiving the nod — Mekari struggled in a brief opportunity with the first-team line midway through the preseason — but none could be labeled an “established” starter based on track record or preseason performance, an uneasy proposition for a team with high expectations entering 2019.
Hurst was labeled the fallback option entering training camp, but the sixth-year swing lineman didn’t take any reps at left guard even in late-summer practices open to reporters. Powers, a fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, started at left guard in the preseason finale while the veteran linemen — Hurst included — rested, but most of the rookie’s summer reps came elsewhere after the opening week of camp in which he split first-team reps with Eluemunor. Bozeman took most of the first-team snap at left guard in the final open practices of the summer and started there in the third preseason game against Philadelphia, but he played right guard and center in the preseason finale.
Trying to read the tea leaves leaves the left guard competition clear as mud, which is perfectly fine with 12th-year head coach John Harbaugh.
“We’ve decided. We have our starting lineup all set up, but we’re not going to share that information,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Why would we? What would be the advantage for us to do that?”
The Ravens haven’t entered a season with such uncertainty at left guard since 2012, a campaign that culminated with a Super Bowl championship. That’s not to suggest it’s ideal or a harbinger of success, but even the most serious contenders can survive a major question mark at a given position.
Harbaugh and the coaching staff surprised everyone in that 2012 opener by starting Ramon Harewood, who hadn’t played a single snap in the NFL over his first two seasons. That decision was part of the fallout of shifting Michael Oher to left tackle, rookie Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, and Bryant McKinnie to the bench, but Harewood lasted only five weeks at left guard before Baltimore turned to veteran Bobbie Williams from Weeks 6-10 and Jah Reid over the final seven games of the regular season. Of course, the Ravens inserted McKinnie back at left tackle, shifted Oher to right tackle, and moved Osemele inside to left guard for the postseason, and the rest was history.
In other words, the Week 1 starter at left guard isn’t guaranteed to even be there for the home opener, let alone the entire season. That was true last year when four different players started at left guard and Hurst and Bozeman split time at the position in the final games of the season. It was their combined struggles in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that led to an offseason full of handwringing about the position.
Days from kickoff, the only constant has been that concern.
Griffin, M. Brown “full-go” for opener
The Ravens will release their first injury report of the season Wednesday, but 2019 first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown and backup quarterback Robert Griffin III are expected to be “full-go” against the Dolphins.
After missing spring workouts and the start of training camp while working his surgically-repaired foot back to full strength, Brown made his debut in the third preseason game, catching three passes for 17 yards in 19 snaps against the Eagles. His work in the preseason finale was limited to two punt returns, both of them muffs.
We’re unlikely to see Brown returning punts again anytime soon, but how extensive his involvement in the offense will be remains to be seen after missing so much practice time this spring and summer, a critical time for a rookie receiver’s development.
“He’s a rookie. He hasn’t had a lot of reps,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to have to get up to speed quickly. We’ll have to be vigilant in what we ask him to do — things that he can do well.
“It’ll be a challenge for [opponents], too, to cover him. He’s really fast. He has great hands. That’s the challenge the other way.”
After sustaining a fracture in his right thumb on July 27, Griffin has been cleared for Week 1, according to Harbaugh’s “understanding right now.” The 29-year-old backup to starter Lamar Jackson didn’t play in the preseason, but he continued to practice on a limited basis throughout training camp.
Injured Dixon “moving on”
The decision to place Kenneth Dixon on injured reserve raised questions from fans after the fourth-year running back rushed 13 times for a game-high 66 yards in the preseason finale and appeared to be OK after the 20-7 win over Washington.
The oft-injured Dixon missed some practice time during training camp and sat out the third preseason game with a sore knee, but many pundits had already predicted him to be on the outside looking in as he stood fourth on the depth chart at running back and was entering the final year of his rookie contract. That’s why many wondered if there was more to the story, even if Dixon did appear a little hobbled at a couple points against the Redskins.
“He’s hurt. He has a knee [injury],” Harbaugh said. “It’s actually a bone bruise that is a fracture, so he’s got a fractured knee. That’s not to say he would have necessarily made the team. It would have been based on how he played. He’s on IR; he’ll be [waived]-injured. Kenny will be moving on.”
Waiving Dixon with an injury designation would require the sides to reach an injury settlement unless he remains on IR until fully healthy. The 2016 fourth-round pick averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry as a Raven, but he played in just 18 games in three seasons with another injury putting an official end to his time in Baltimore.