“If there’s one thing that has helped me as a coach, it’s my ability to recognize winners, or good people who can become winners by paying the price.”
Though these words were spoken by Paul “Bear” Bryant, they could just as easily be attributed to one of his successful protégé’s, Ozzie Newsome, with respect to how he has gone about building the Baltimore Ravens.
Over the course of his front office tenure, Newsome has done, arguably, the finest job of recognizing “winners” and acquiring them through the draft, of any executive in the National Football League. And this ability was, to a large extent, responsible for the 2011 Ravens’ climb to within one step of the Super Bowl.
Though it may be a long and winding road back to the threshold of the title game, the journey begins with the 2012 draft, and, for the Ravens, the shortest distance between the NFL Draft and Super Bowl XLVII is a line – more specifically the offensive line.
Like every NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens have several needs that they are likely to address in this year’s draft. However, the offensive line should be a high priority. Centers Matt Birk (who recently decided to play another season) and Andre Gurode, ages 35 and 32 respectively, are both unrestricted free agents. As such, one or both players may not be playing in Baltimore next season, leaving the cupboard relatively bare. There is an attractive group of free agent centers ready to hit the market, one of which could be a prudent acquisition. San Diego’s Nick Hardwick, Indianapolis’ Jeff Saturday, Houston’s Chris Myers, and New England’s Dan Koppen all may be changing teams this offseason.
The downside to each of these fine players is that each is over 30 and like Birk until recently, more than one is considering retirement. And let’s not forget that each is likely to command a sizable salary.
Typically, the Ravens have not looked to make a big splash in free agency, choosing, instead, to build through the draft. Don’t look for a detour from this tried and proven plan at center or in any other retooling of the team’s roster this offseason. A few not-so-flashy free agent signings and three day NFL Draft is how the Baltimore Ravens will build depth and fill needs.
Should the somewhat indecisive Birk retire, the Ravens will retain Gurode and use an early or mid-round draft pick to add a talented player, who can either come in and start immediately or push Gurode for playing time this season, ultimately assuming the starting position in 2013. If Birk returns, Gurode probably will be allowed to sign elsewhere but still use one of their early draft cards on a center.
In the 2012 draft, the only center likely to be taken in round one is Wisconsin’s Peter Konz (6’5” 315), who is a tall, smart, experienced player that likely could start from day one. Konz, a powerful, dominating run blocker, is surprisingly agile and quick for his size, possessing a solid, wide base, and strong lower body, which he consistently uses to overpower defenders inside. He’s quick off the ball, plays with a nasty streak, and finishes every play strong.
In tight spaces, he can be dominating, but he struggles when asked to pull around the edge, and is not as effective when blocking on the move. Konz is a solid pass protector, though, at times, he overextends or allows a rusher to get under his pads, both situations where his 6’5” frame serves as a disadvantage. Though Konz is the top rated center on virtually every draft board, he might not be the consummate fit for Baltimore, who may be looking to get smaller and more athletic on the offensive line, after adopting a zone run blocking scheme.
If Konz isn’t the pick in round one, the Ravens still can find talented centers, like Georgia’s Ben Jones (6’3” 316), Ohio State’s Mike Brewster (6’5” 305), or Philip Blake (6’3” 320) from Baylor, somewhere in rounds two through five. Of these three productive college centers, Ben Jones is the best fit for Baltimore.
Jones, though possessing good size, is more of a finesse blocker than a driving road grader. While he can be effective in a straight ahead, man on man, role, he excels at getting out on the edge and blocking on the move, and is clearly the best pulling center available in the draft. In both the running and passing games, he’s more of a “stick” blocker, looking to neutralize an opponent by locking on and absorbing the blow, rather than by trying to attack and drive the defender three yards off the line, and he is extremely effective in implementing this technique. Jones, one of the only centers in college football named overall captain of his team, started an impressive 49 games for the Bulldogs, including 10 out of 13 as a freshman, playing in the toughest conference in the country. He is battled tested, and should be a long term starter, if not immediately, then shortly into his professional career.
As a late round flier, Baltimore could take a shot with Nebraska’s Mike Caputo (6’1” 275), who, though undersized and lacking power in the run game, does an outstanding job getting to linebackers at the second level, or even safeties further downfield.