The biggest surprise of the 2012 Playoffs might have been the play of the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line. I think we all remember the moment on Wildcard Weekend when Bryant McKinnie ran out onto the field to be one of the starters and not the sixth lineman in the jumbo set. This group of guys played way above all expectations for the next four games, slaying the likes of Dwight Freeney, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Vince Wilfork, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. The Ravens will definitely bring back Marshal Yanda, Kelechi Osemele and Michael Oher, however the formation is still in flux. Oher’s position on the line is certainly one that has been hotly debated in recent years.
Michael Oher’s four years in the league have been met with much fanfare. To the casual fan around the league, he is known as "Big Mike", but to Ravens fans everywhere, he is known as someone whose success is directly linked to how the offense performs. He has started every game in his career and been bounced from the right side, to the left side and back, twice. When he was drafted in 2009, the Ravens and their fans certainly saw him as the replacement for Jonathan Ogden that the team desperately needed. Much like our middle linebacker situation since 1997, our quarterback’s blindside has always been taken care of. When J. O. retired, this left a void that the organization was not familiar with. Oher seems likely the long term solution to this, but I am not so sure.
Michael Oher only played one season at the "easier" right tackle before being thrown into the fire against the game’s best pass rushers the next season. The biggest struggle for Oher seemed to be the penalties on the left side. Oher has driven fans crazy with his false start, holding and chop block penalties (which have actually cost him some money). His most notable gaff at left tackle was missing Troy Polamalu blitzing off the left side in the game in 2010 against the Pittsburgh Steelers that all but sealed up the division for those towel wavers from the northwest. He moved back to the right in 2011, where he and the offense were more productive. This past year, he spent the year again on the left, and he started to rack up the penalties again. Don’t get me wrong, Oher is one of the most athletic linemen in the game, but I do not see him being one of the NFL’s premier left tackles. The offensive line is simply a better unit when he is on the right. In the 2009 season, a banged up Ravens team went into Foxboro and beat the Patriots while racking up 234 yards rushing. The other two seasons that Oher has played on the right have ended in the AFC Championship game (agonizingly) and with a Super Bowl championship. The Ravens were not able to reach those heights when he was on the left.
Keeping Big Mike on the right keeps the left side a question mark. The incumbent, Bryant McKinnie, has had a very eventful relationship with Coach John Harbaugh in his two years with the team. McKinnie has come into the Ravens training camp overweight both times. He was a huge part of the Super Bowl run, and has expressed interest in coming back. With the level of uncertainty that comes with his conditioning and attitude, I think the Ravens should look elsewhere. With the retirement of Matt Birk, I think this is an outstanding point to start building a core group instead of continuing to plug holes. Keleche Osemele, Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher make up three of the five, and with Gino Gradkowski in line for the center spot, the Ravens only need another young tackle to complete this core group of guys.
The 2013 Draft has a very deep OT class, with the likes of Luke Joekel (future Chief), Eric Fisher (top 10) and Lane Johnson (not far behind). For the Ravens to get these guys they will have to give up later round picks to move up in front of at least the Chargers at #11. I think the Ravens can round out their core in this draft with one of the following guys:
D. J. Fluker (Alabama) – He was seen as a top pick at the beginning of the year, but questionable performances against Western Kentucky and Michigan had him falling down the boards. He came back in SEC play most notably when he went against Barkevious Mingo of LSU, not to mention, he was part of the 5 man wrecking crew that dispatched Manti Te’o and the Irish. Most draft experts have him going in the 20s or 30s, right in the Ravens area.
Kyle Long (Oregon) – Long has an outstanding football pedigree as he is the son of Howie Long and brother of St. Louis Ram Chris Long. A baseball player for most of his life, Long only has been playing football for two years. He burst into the starting line-up late last season, only starting four games at LG. His 6’6’ 313 pound frame, however, has many looking at him as their left tackle of the future. Long is projected to go in the second round.
The offensive line is another unit that the Ravens need to address this off-season. Matt Birk retiring and Bryant McKinnie’s future leave the purple and black with some question marks. The return of Jah Reid will certainly be a boost to the line, but I still think the Ravens should look for more help, whether it be in free agency or through the draft.