With the 2014 NFL draft just a few weeks away, the interior offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens has gone from a glaring question mark to one of the most solidified units on the roster.
Assuming Kelechi Osemele is healthy and returns to left guard next season, the starting interior line of Osemele, center Jeremy Zuttah and right guard Marshal Yanda is set.
That leaves the Ravens with only a need to add depth to the interior, as opposed to finding a year-one starter. Right now, the depth includes centers Gino Gradkowski and Ryan Jensen, guard/center A.Q. Shipley and guard/tackle Jah Reid. Second-year lineman Ricky Wagner could also fill in at guard if necessary.
Reid’s arrest this offseason leaves his future with the team in doubt, especially when added to his middling on-field play that already raised concerns.
Gradkowski lost his starting job after one year, Jensen has yet to take a preseason or regular season snap in the NFL, and Shipley filled in less than admirably at left guard last season.
The uncertainty of the quality of the depth along the interior leaves the door open to upgrade the guard and/or center positions in May’s draft.
Who could be of interest to the Ravens?
Tyler Larsen, Utah State – Perhaps too easy of a connection to make? Whether it sways Baltimore’s pre-draft interest in the former starting center for the Aggies or not, Larsen is the younger brother of Ravens practice squad member Cody Larsen.
A stout, durable (51 consecutive starts), easy mover, Larsen has the strength to be a force in the run game, and could play either center or guard. Larsen would be an upgrade over a lineman such as Shipley as a more reliable interior backup.
Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma – This could be another Gradkowski-like pick, as Ikard simply may be overmatched in the NFL. His lack of consistent functional strength at this point raises question about whether or not he could hold his own against stronger competition.
He is an easy mover in space, though, and hails from an Oklahoma offense that highlighted some of his abilities to be a viable zone-blocking center. If Ikard can build on his rather minimal strength, he projects better than Gradkowski as a pro. But that could take some time, and as a rookie he’ll likely follow a path similar to Gradkowski, and be someone who likely doesn’t touch the field much (if at all) as he adjusts to the NFL.
Joel Bitonio, Nevada – Bitonio is as versatile as any lineman in this draft, but perhaps he will be too far out of Baltimore’s reach as a post-first round option unless the team wants to invest a high pick in someone who may not start in year one.
Bitonio was a tackle in college, but his small (but stout) frame could slide him to the inside in the NFL. He would benefit from improved strength, but Bitonio held his own on the outside against premier pass rushers such as Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Barr last season.
He probably gets drafted higher than Baltimore’s ideal positioning for him, but he projects as a lineman who could realistically have success anywhere along the offensive line.
If the Ravens do indeed see Bitonio as a viable early-round option, he and Osemele could be interchangeable at left guard and right tackle (although it appears K.O. is settled in at left guard long term).
DRAFT AND STASH
Brandon Thomas, Clemson – Once considered a potential top-50 pick, Thomas’ recent ACL injury all but guarantees he won’t be able to play as a rookie. Could that actually make his chances of landing in Baltimore higher? While the Ravens have eight picks, they don’t necessarily have eight open spots on the roster, and making a draft-and-stash move could help the roster long term, as opposed to just 2014.
Thomas is a swing guard/tackle who played left tackle for Clemson last season, but may project better on the interior, similar to Osemele. The Ravens always favor guard/tackle combinations in the draft, and the team’s history of drafting players who spend the first year on injured reserve – most recently Kapron Lewis-Moore – makes the prospects of landing Thomas higher. The ACL injury could turn away teams, but Thomas has starter potential, and could be a good value pick if the injury causes him to slide during the draft.