It seems like linemen these days are more versatile than they have been in a long time. Whether a coach is talking about an offense or defense, that player is usually taught to play multiple positions. Baltimore’s groups are no exception.
Both guards (Kelechi Osemele, Marshal Yanda) can and have played right tackle, and when he was a Raven, Michael Oher seemed to see-saw between right and left tackle. Center Jeremy Zuttah could probably play both guard spots and Ryan Jensen has seen practice time at all three positions across the offensive front.
Regardless of the luxury of versatility, a coach must decide which position best fits a certain player.
For example, Haloti Ngata could play any defensive line position at a very high level. But due to the depth at defensive end and the lack of depth at nose tackle, Ngata will probably start the season at nose tackle (lined up right in front of the center).
Despite Ngata’s great talent, nose tackles are usually space-eaters and get double-teamed often, which makes me think his talent is better suited as a defensive tackle, where he can stack and shed as well as rush the passer. Obviously he will make plays wherever he lines up, but Ngata’s best position in the 3-4 is defensive tackle. He has the size of a typical nose tackle, but rare quickness which might be negated by frequent double teams.
Speaking of defensive tackle, that position is up for grabs. Arthur Jones was the starting three-technique (lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard) on Baltimore’s defense until he signed with the Colts within minutes of free agency beginning on March 11. The only other defensive tackle on Baltimore’s roster with NFL experience is Brandon Williams–Baltimore’s third-round pick from a year ago.
Though he’s only totaled six tackles in seven games, Williams did record a sack and a fumble recovery in his rookie year. He’s 6’1″, 335 pounds of muscle and is getting better, as John Harbaugh eluded to today after practice:
“Brandon has looked really good. I think he continues to get in great shape. The way he’s built, you’re not going to see that body type too much. I mean, the amount of muscle he has packed on that frame of his is pretty incredible. He’s explosive, he’s quick, but he’s playing fundamentals. I think Clarence [Brooks] has a done a great job with him. I’m looking forward to when the pads get on, you know, just to see how he does. The young defensive line looks good, right now, but, you know, we’re out here kind of running around in shorts.”
Williams, in my opinion, has the lead on his competitors because of his rare combination of size and athleticism. His strength and lateral movement give him the opportunity to create mismatches for many centers and guards. In so doing, that could enable the Ravens to run different stunts or blitzes than most teams can do, creating complex reads for opposing offenses.
But as Harbaugh said, they’re just in shorts now. Williams needs to prove it when the pads come on.
Of the five rookie defensive tackles on the roster, Williams’ main competitor figures to be Timmy Jernigan, this year’s second-round pick. Jernigan (6’2″, 298 pounds) played a lot of nose tackle in college, but due to his “lack” of size he will probably play most of his snaps as a defensive tackle.
Like Williams, Jernigan is incredibly strong, so if the Ravens wanted to they could play him at nose tackle. But I think his best position for now is defensive tackle, at least until he gets used to life as an NFL lineman.
Jernigan started on college football’s best defense last year and he anchored their defensive line. Will his talent translate? That’s the big question for any player, but for Jernigan specifically, I see no reason why it wouldn’t. He’s physical, smart and hungry to make plays. Other teams game-planned for him every week and he still shined. As a Raven, Jernigan doesn’t figure to be a high priority for the other teams, at least not immediately.
If this spot were just up for grabs between Williams and Jernigan, it would be intriguing to watch. Factor in Baltimore’s heat and humidity with four more rookies playing for their football lives, and you get one heck of a training camp battle.
Or as Harbaugh likes to put it, a situation where “iron sharpens iron.”