One of the biggest uncertainties for the Baltimore Ravens heading into next week’s draft is the offensive line.
Center Matt Birk retired and unrestricted free agent left tackle Bryant McKinnie doesn’t appear to be returning to Baltimore. The Ravens could negotiate with McKinnie after the draft as the free agent market continues to dwindle, but there’s no indication of him playing for the team next season.
The Ravens appear to have Birk’s heir already on the team, however. Center Gino Gradkowski was drafted by the team in the fourth round of last year’s draft out of Delaware. He played in all 16 regular season games as well as the playoffs, mainly in a special teams role.
Based on Tuesday’s pre-draft press conference that the Ravens front office held, all signs point to him taking over at center.
That leaves the left tackle position as a glaring hole along the Baltimore offensive line. During the press conference, it was hinted that Kelechi Osemele could take over for McKinnie at left tackle.
Osemele played mainly right tackle during the regular season in 2012, and moved to left guard for the playoffs. He is perfectly capable of playing left tackle in the NFL, however he showed during the playoffs that he can be a future All-Pro in the league at left guard.
While the Ravens appear content with moving Osemele to left tackle, keeping him at guard would be an ideal scenario.
Another solution to the left tackle problem could be drafting one. With the Ravens currently owning the 32nd pick in the first round, they will miss out on the draft’s top three tackles, Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher and Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson.
After the trio of talented tackles, there’s a catastrophic drop-off in talent. The only other offensive tackle worthy of being selected in the first round is Alabama’s D.J. Fluker, although he is better served at right tackle or even a guard position.
The drop-off in talent prompted Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta to address the talent at the tackle position in the later rounds at Tuesday’s press conference.
Players he spotlighted include Florida State’s Menelik Watson, Syracuse’s Justin Pugh, Wisconsin’s Ricky Wagner and Kent State’s Brian Winters.
“I think Menelik Watson [is an] interesting story,” DeCosta said. “Right tackle at Florida State, one-year player basically, interesting guy.”
Watson could be an option for the Ravens, although he projects much better at right tackle in the NFL and wouldn’t necessarily fit along the offensive line. He could end up being a first-round pick, based on his perceived upside, although he simply doesn’t possess enough skill or athleticism to be a left tackle in the NFL.
The other three that DeCosta mentioned, Winters, Pugh and Wagner, all project better at either guard or right tackle in the NFL.
Wagner would be an ideal right tackle for an NFL team and will likely get selected on the third day of the draft.
“Right tackle, left tackle, flexibility, big, long guy, good pass protector, tough, smart,” DeCosta said of Wagner.
If the Ravens do go through with the plan to move Osemele to left tackle, Winters and Pugh would be viable options.
Winters would experience little-to-no success in the NFL as a tackle, but as a left guard for the Ravens, he could fit in well. He is a prototypical intimidating mauler who brings toughness to an offensive line.
Winters will likely be a mid-round pick but could be in play for the Ravens’ third-round pick.
“Left tackle, solid player, good prospect for the NFL, tough, gritty guy,” DeCosta said.
Pugh would be the best option of the four linemen that DeCosta mentioned, as he is versatile enough to play anywhere along an offensive line. He played offensive tackle in college but will likely be a guard in the NFL.
He is an experienced, fundamentally sound player who doesn’t have many flaws in his game. However, the fact that he’s 6’4 and has 32” arms could lead to trouble for him as a tackle.
The Ravens could target him with the 32nd pick in the draft, but he also may very well be available when the team is on the clock in the second round as well.
All four of the linemen that DeCosta mentioned could be possible options to help solidify the offensive line, with Pugh and Winters being the most ideal selections because of their ability to play guard.
However, if the Ravens do decide to keep Osemele at guard, two other options at left tackle could be Arkansas Pine-Bluff’s Terron Armstead and Florida’s Xavier Nixon.
While Armstead could get selected as early as the beginning of the second round, he could be an option for the team if available at the end of the second round. He’s known for his record-setting combine performance, but he’s also a talented player.
Armstead projects to be a tackle in the NFL and could play left tackle, which is what he played in college. He is an exceptional athlete with quick feet, long arms and maintains his balance well.
Jumping to tougher competition in the NFL could trouble Armstead, but he may be worth the risk.
Nixon could be an option for the team with its third-round pick. The talented left tackle struggled with continuous penalties and blown assignments while at Florida. He may remind some Ravens fans of Michael Oher with his plethora of mental relapses on the field.
However, Nixon handled South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney better than any tackle in the country last season and shut down Texas A&M star pass rusher Damontre Moore. Nixon is a true hit-or-miss prospect as he could be one of the league’s best left tackles or struggle to ever touch the field depending on how well he is prepared mentally.
There are plenty of options for the Ravens along the offensive line in the draft, and based on DeCosta’s comments on Tuesday as well as the need at tackle and guard, the team will surely use at least one draft pick on a lineman.