The most complete offensive performance the Ravens put together (outside of the Vinny days) was in 2014. It remains the gold standard in a parade of mediocrity. Much of the success of that team can be attributed to Gary Kubiak‘s influence (his loss continues to loom large).
But the other factor was the play of the offensive line.
If you look around the league this season, offensive line play is the driving factor for sustainable offensive production, especially in the ground game. Dallas, New England, Miami, Atlanta and Oakland have superior lines that have been consistent all season. On the flip side, teams like the Vikings and Broncos have had consistently bad offensive line play, and that’s led to both teams collapsing down the stretch.
The difference between the haves and the have nots comes down to the big uglies in the trenches.
For two seasons now, the Ravens have dealt with inconsistent play from that group due to a variety of factors — injuries, free agency, and regression. However, there is serious potential for this line to regain its footing among the best in the league if the front office prioritizes a couple of key moves.
First and foremost, the question of keeping NT Brandon Williams or RT Rick Wagner will come up frequently in the coming weeks. The reality is the team will be hard-pressed to afford either player.
That said, it’s clear the team needs to prioritize Rick Wagner and find a way to keep him. This is a player they’ve developed in-house, and when he’s healthy, he’s proven to be a stable starting RT. You keep Wagner in the fold along with Ronnie Stanley, and your bookends are covered for years to come.
Bringing back Wagner at RT also enables the coaching staff to keep rookie Alex Lewis as the starting left guard. Lewis played his best football at the G position alongside Stanley. If he needs to swing outside to the right side, he could make the transition work, but why not keep your top linemen where they are most comfortable?
Lastly, the final key to improving the line (at least from a personnel standpoint) lies at the center position. Jeremy Zuttah has to be replaced.
This 2017 crop of free agents leaves much to be desired. There is no Alex Mack, for example, and even if there were, the Ravens would be hard-pressed to make that investment work.
If the Ravens target the draft to find their new anchor, Ethan Pocic from LSU and Patt Elflien from Ohio State are the top prospects in the class (at the moment), and are projected to go between the late first and second rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Prioritizing a center when there are so many other needs (pass rusher, cornerback, receiver) may seem like a stretch. But there is something to be said for the approach the Cowboys took when they invested first-round picks in back to back seasons to sure up their interior offensive line.
People chuckled when they took Travis Frederick in the first round back in 2013. Who’s laughing now? Frederick is the best center in the game.
It gets back to the same issue for the Ravens: If they want to improve their offense, they need to invest in it. No more shopping for Blue Light Specials. No more clearance rack searches at the far end of aisle 19 at Walmart.
The easiest way to get the most out of that side of the ball is to make these offensive line moves a priority. A good line makes Joe Flacco better, makes the running game better.
From a personnel standpoint at least (minus letting go of Juan Castillo, which I know has been a point of discussion for the line issues as well), retaining Wagner and replacing Zuttah would be a welcome start to augmenting a unit that still has the potential to be a top notch group with the pieces they have in place.