PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line was far from a detriment last season as quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t regularly bashed into the ground and running back Ray Rice piled up yards.
Given the defection of Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, not being able to land Philadelphia Eagles free agent offensive guard Evan Mathis as his replacement, struggles in short-yardage situations and having two older starters in center Matt Birk and left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, the Ravens aren’t done addressing the position.
“We have to upgrade the offensive line,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday morning at The Breakers hotel during the annual NFL owners meetings. “I don’t even know if we have a full complement to be on our 53-man roster right now. We don’t have our five starters set. We have guys where you say, “Can they play a position or not?’
Four of five starters are slated to return, including Birk, 35, and McKinnie, 32, after the team picked up his $500,000 roster bonus as well as right tackle Michael Oher and right guard Marshal Yanda.
The Ravens’ current plan at left guard is to install 6-foot-7, 330-pound former third-round offensive tackle Jah Reid as their starter.
It’s a fluid situation, though, given his lack of experience and the lack of depth on the line.
“We’re talking about Jah., ‘Can he play left guard?” Harbaugh said. “So, we have to get better there just for the fact that we don’t really have the numbers there right now.
“The thing I’ve learned over the years in Philadelphia and everywhere else, it starts with the offensive line on offense. The quarterback is obviously critically important but if you don’t have an offensive line, you can forget about it. We have to be able to build an offensive line.”
The Ravens have yet to make a move on several free agent guards, including Jake Scott, Kyle Kosier, Chris Kemoeatu, Eric Steinbach and Bobbie Williams. Scott recently visited the Miami Dolphins.
They haven’t ruled out eventually pursuing a free agent and/or using the draft to land an interior lineman like Wisconsin center Pete Konz, Wisconsin offensive guard Kevin Zeitler or University of Georgia tackle-guard Cordy Glenn.
“We can go after a veteran free agent,” said Harbaugh, who doesn’t consider the draft a deep one for offensive linemen. “We can go after a couple of draft picks, or the guy that may be cut at some point in time. We’ll be turning over every stone.”
The Ravens were $4.664 million under the salary cap limit prior to signing four players Friday: inside linebacker Jameel McClain as well as less expensive deals for special-teams aces Brendon Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham as well as reserve safety Sean Considine.
“We still have a little bit of room,” Harbaugh said. “Off the top of my head, my math says we’ve got a few dollars left so we can do something. If we need to do some things, we can be creative.”
McKinnie is heading into a contract year and the Ravens brought him in to for a meeting at team headquarters recently to evaluate his conditioning and outlook prior to picking up his bonus.
McKinnie didn’t grade out highly for his run blocking last season, but the 6-7, 360-pounder had to drop weight in a hurry after ballooning up to 387 pounds during the NFL lockout and being cut by the Minnesota Vikings.
“He had done a good job, he’d been working in the offseason, he’s training,” Harbaugh said. “He’s in the same shape he was in when he left. We want to improve that from now until the start of next season. It’s going to be really important what he does between now and when the offseason program starts on through June that he gets in the kind of shape he needs to be in. It’s not like he’s a big, fat guy. He’s a big guy. We still want him to be able to move a little better and get a little quicker.”
Meanwhile, Harbaugh reiterated that the team plans to bring in competition for former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff.
Cundiff missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds of the Ravens’ crushing AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots.
Shayne Graham filled in late in the season for Cundiff when he was sidelined with a calf injury and remains available as a free agent.
“If we can get a kicker that is capable of competing with Billy, we’ll do it,” Harbaugh said. “Do you have to draft a guy? Is there a free agent? Is there a guy that will be on the street? That’s kind of hard to determine.
“I’m not ruling anything out, but Billy is our kicker. And I would anticipate Billy will be our kicker for the opening game of the season. I think he’ll have a great preseason. I think he’ll have a great season next year, but everybody gets competition and he’s no exception. You have to prove it every year in this league.”
Plus, Harbaugh is hopeful that Rice won’t exercise his right as the franchise player to not report.
Rice has been assigned a one-year, $7.742 million tender, but has yet to sign it. The Ravens have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term deal with Rice. Otherwise, he’ll have to play the entire season under the tag.
No deal is close at this time.
“I don’t know what their strategy will be, if they feel like they even need a strategy,” Harbaugh said. “That kind of goes back to the agent more than the player, but Ray Rice is a man. He loves football. He wants to be in there with his teammates.
“I’m hoping he’ll be there from Day One. I would expect him to be there from Day One. But if he’s not, I’m not going to hold it against him as a coach. We just need the best Ray Rice that’s possible for the first game.”
Harbaugh said he gets “positive vibes” about the state of talks between vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty and the representatives for Rice and Flacco.
“I think it’s going well,” said Harbaugh, adding that he resists the urge to constantly check in on talks with Moriarty and general manager Ozzie Newsome. “That doesn’t mean that anything is imminent because it takes a long time. I think you’ve got to be careful about how much pressure you place on your guys.
“Pat Moriarty is our negotiator, he does a great job. Ozzie knows what he’s doing. They all want a deal. Ray’s agent wants a deal. I pray. I cross my fingers and my toes.”
Now that Ricky Williams abruptly retired after the season, the Ravens need a backup running back.
They are evaluating Anthony Allen, their seventh-round draft pick from last year, and former practice squad running back Damien Berry. Both are unproven at the NFL level.
If Rice is absent from the offseason, training camp or any regular-season games, then Allen would be in the mix for playing time.
“[Allen’s] potentially a No. 1 if something happens,” Harbaugh said. “Every backup player is an injury away, a play away from being the guy. We think a lot of him, we think they’re going to have very good seasons. But we’ve got to look at some insurance, too. We’ve got to have more than two running backs on the roster, so we’ll add some guys.”
Harbaugh said he hasn’t spoken to Williams since shortly after his retirement.
Harbaugh was noncommittal on former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, only saying he’s “definitely on the list.”
Other free agent running back options include Ryan Grant, Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, Cadillac Williams, Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown.
The Ravens are high on former second-round pick Paul Kruger as the potential replacement for strongside outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers.
"I think Paul is probably the leading candidate for the Sam linebacker job," Harbaugh said. "I could very definitely see him doing that. When we lost Jarret, I went back and watched all of Paul’s tape. I watched every one of his plays from last year, just to try and get a feel just for whether or not we’d be comfortable with him in there.
“He did a nice job in coverage, he set the edge well. Obviously, he’s a very good pass rusher. I believe Paul can do it. I think he will do it.”
Kruger recorded 5 ½ sacks in a reserve role last season, primarily rushing the passer on third downs.
However, Johnson was an aggressive run-stopper whose tenacity will be difficult to replicate.
Kruger has demonstrated a greater commitment to football over the past year.
“He’s committed to doing it,” Harbaugh said. “It means everything to him. He wants to be that guy and he wants to do it as well or better than how it’s been done for the Ravens. That’s what you want out of one of your players.
“What he told me was, he just kind of decided that it was time to become a player. He figured out what it meant to be a pro, how hard he had to study, how hard he had to work. It’s a process for guys and maybe he took a couple of steps in the maturity process and just got better as a player.”
Harbaugh acknowledged that he hasn’t gotten over the Ravens’ loss to the Patriots, saying: “It will be there forever.”