The wait is almost over!
With veterans reporting to camp on Wednesday, July 26th, we are almost out of the very long NFL offseason. Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office have received some heavy criticism for the lack of additions to an offensive unit that ranked 17th in total yards and 21st in points last season.
The numbers show a middle-of-the-pack offense, but, at times, we witnessed an absolute gong show on that side of the ball.
Let’s take a look at some of the key position battles heading into the 2017 training camp.
We’ll take a look at the offensive line as a whole, given that there are two major holes and no proven players on the roster ready to step in. The loss of RT Ricky Wagner in free agency to the Detroit Lions and the release of C Jeremy Zuttah opened two holes on an offensive line unit that, as a group, had a terrible 2016 season.
Zuttah was noticeably bad in pass protection last year and it resulted in Joe Flacco continually having pressure in his face. Shoring up the interior line is going to be crucial to ensuring Flacco is comfortable in the pocket.
Ryan Jensen: Jensen opened as the team’s starting C on the depth chart during OTA’s and showed up to camp in better shape according to John Harbaugh. Jensen is a big, mean road-grader who could fit what newcomer Greg Roman envisions for the offensive line. Roman is known for using a mix of zone blocking and man blocking, as well as plenty of traps and pulls. Having a big, physical center may be the right move to get back to an effective running game.
John Urschel: Urschel provides an alternative skill set to Jensen. He’s more of a finesse blocker and is a better fit for a zone blocking scheme. Urschel is much more like Zuttah than Jensen is, but given Zuttah’s struggle last year and the arrival of Roman, Urschel may not be an ideal fit. Urschel was up and down last year while playing OG and the word “inconsistent” can describe his career so far.
Matt Skura: Skura provides an intriguing candidacy. Skura was a practice squad player last year as an undrafted center from Duke. Standing at 6’3″ he has impressive arm length with 35 1/4″ arms and was touted as a solid developmental center. We don’t have enough game film to really know what we have in Skura, but he’s going to be heavily under the microscope during training camp and the preseason. Skura will be on my list as one of the “surprise” candidates to win a starting position for the 2017 season.
Speaking of unproven, the right tackle candidates don’t provide much more in terms of being proven.
James Hurst: Hopefully no one has mentioned to Flacco that Hurst was penciled in as the starting RT during OTA’s. Hurst had a particularly rough time stepping in for Ronnie Stanley last year. He was abused by Oakland’s Khalil Mack and just has not been very good while playing the left side. Ravens fans will remain hopeful that a switch to the right side may help, but many are terrified that he will be protecting Flacco in September.
Stephane Nembot: Nembot spent the season on injured reserve, which may give the impression that they were worried about losing him on their practice squad. Nembot possesses ideal size and length for the position and was known for having a very strong punch in college. However, his balance and technique were never a strong area. Eyes will be peeled to Nembot during the preseason.
De’Ondre Wesley: Wesley is yet another undrafted OT from 2015 out of Brigham Young who, like Nembot, spent the 2016 season on injured reserve. Much like Nembot, he has great physical tools, but struggles with his technique and is seen as a developmental option.
The issue with the right tackle candidates is that all three have been considered raw prospects. That means there is certainly breakout potential, but also a lot of uncertainty.
There are numerous options the Ravens could go with the offensive line, which include kicking Marshal Yanda or Alex Lewis out to RT. That would allow rookie Nico Siragusa to compete for the open guard position. However, the team has noted that they prefer to keep Lewis at guard and Yanda is an elite right guard so moving him is not ideal either.
With all of that said, a Week 1 combination of Ronnie Stanley – Nico Siragusa – Ryan Jensen – Marshal Yanda – Alex Lewis will be my prediction. This line will be a liability in pass blocking, but could be a very good run blocking group. The Ravens have said they want to run the ball and behind the line, that includes four road-graders, they could boost the run game.
The preseason may show that the RT options need more development and force the coaching staff’s hand to move some players.
The last major position battle for the offensive unit is at tight end. Veteran Ben Watson is returning from injury to battle with oft-suspended Nick Boyle and oft-injured Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams. It’s safe to say this group has question marks all over.
Nick Boyle: Boyle spent 10 games on the bench last year, as he was suspended for PED use. He showed some flashes in 2015 as a rookie with his great ability to catch over the middle into contact. He is also an above average blocker; however, he doesn’t have the athleticism to be a game breaking player.
Ben Watson: Watson tore his Achilles last year in the third preseason game. The 36-year-old was coming off a big year with the Saints where he had 74 catches for 825 yards and 6 TD. He has always been a solid player, but, like Boyle, doesn’t offer game breaking abilities, especially at his age.
Crockett Gilmore: Gilmore has been a tough player to watch in his three seasons. He looked primed for a breakout in 2015 before battling injuries suffered in Week 4 and then again in Week 14. Gilmore’s problem hasn’t been skill, but rather his durability. He can block and catch and offers more athleticism than Boyle and Watson.
Maxx Williams: Williams possesses the highest ceiling of the four candidates, but like Gilmore, hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He had a strong rookie year with 32 catches, but didn’t register a stat last year after being derailed with a preseason knee injury that eventually ended his season. Williams underwent a unique knee surgery and will likely open camp on PUP. Unfortunately, Williams is entering bust territory. You can’t make the squad sitting in the tub.
Boyle offers the most stability, assuming he’s left the PED life in the past. He won’t wow you with his speed, but he can find soft spots in the middle of the field and make the catch while providing good blocking. Watson and Gilmore are also solid blocking tight ends who can breakout as receivers and, if healthy, the Ravens could roll with a TE-by-committee approach.