The inside of the Ravens offensive line struggled this year after the retirement of Matt Birk and the injury to second year player Kelechi Osemele. Marshall Yanda, the veteran leader of the group, also had his issues this season.
Ozzie Newsome has already acknowledged the need to improve these positions, and that may be done most efficiently through free agency. Ideally, K.O. and Yanda would start at the two guard positions while the Ravens figure something out for center, but there is plenty of flexibility to work with.
The Ravens current situation:
Gino Gradkowski is a name known by all Ravens fans, and not for good reasons. Gradkowski took over for Matt Birk as a second year player and struggled the entire season. The Ravens were extremely excited to draft him in the fourth round of the 2012 Draft out of Delaware, but that excitement has surely faltered.
Gradkowski was known for his football intelligence, and while he may be a smart football player, he is not a good one. Continually failing to get any movement (and often losing ground) against NFL nose tackles, Gradkowski certainly contributed to the run game struggles. Additionally, he could not stop a delayed, inside blitz to save his life (or Joe Flacco's).
Gradkowski will have to pick his game up if he hopes to continue to start in the NFL. It typically takes 2 or 3 seasons for centers to get acclimated to the NFL, but the Ravens can not wait that long.
A. Q. Shipley was acquired from the Indianapolis Colts for a seventh round draft pick this offseason to ideally serve as competition for the starting center spot. He was successful in Indianapolis, so it was a well-received move. That was until Shipley's awful play in the preseason that forced the Ravens to start Gradkowski at center.
Shipley would then get another chance to start when Kelechi Osemele went down with a back injury. Despite starting the rest of the season, Shipley teamed up with Gradkowski to form an awful inside blocking duo. A little small for the NFL at 6'1" 309 lbs, it almost seemed like GM Ozzie Newsome was talking directly to him when he said the Ravens need to get bigger on the offensive line.
Marshall Yanda is the veteran and the leader of this offensive line. He has dominated as a right guard in the past (and played pretty well as a tackle too), but struggled this year and made some question whether he came back too quickly from an offseason shoulder surgery. Regardless, Yanda's job is safe this offseason and he should come back stronger in 2014.
Kelechi Osemele started his entire rookie season at right tackle, where he was solid, before being moved to left guard during the Superbowl run. Things really clicked for Osemele at left guard, as he was dominant during that stretch and even manhandled the San Francisco 49er's Justin Smith in the Superbowl. The Ravens kept him at guard in his second season before placing him on IR due to a lingering back injury that was affecting his play. Ideally, the Ravens would like him to return to guard in 2014, where he has a much higher ceiling. Expect him to start regardless.
Ryan Jensen was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of small school Colorado State-Pueblo. Despite breaking his foot during training camp, the Ravens never placed Jensen on IR so as to make sure they could continue to coach him. He is expected to compete next season as a center.
Free Agents of Interest:
*Note- If you're looking for a list of high profile free agents such as Alex Mack, stop reading. The Ravens do not target those types of free agents, so this list is comprised of mid-to-low tier players who fit the Ravens' need and price range.
A dominant run blocker, Shwartz has been on offensive lines for the best seasons of DeAngelo Williams, Adrian Peterson, and Jamal Charles. He has the flexibility to play either guard or tackle, and could help get the Ravens offensive line back together and get the run game back on track. He has had some issues with a hip injury in the past, but that seems to be behind him.
Garza is a capable veteran nearing the end of his career. With experience at both center and guard, Garza would come in and instantly start at center for the Ravens in a Matt Birk-esque signing. The Bears have so many free agents they may have to let an older player like Garza go.
Brian De La Puente, New Orleans Saints
De La Puente has been an above average center for a couple of seasons now, commanding the capable offensive line for Drew Brees. With the Saints struggling with the salary cap, they may not be able to afford De La Puente. He would be the most expensive signing of the guys on this list, but he is still in his prime and would pay huge dividends.