Reports from the Baltimore Ravens first organized team practices of the 2017 offseason indicate Ryan Jensen was working as the offensive line’s first string center. Some speculated that math whiz John Urschel or former undrafted rookie Matt Skura were in line for the job. Veteran blocker Nick Mangold has also been rumored as a potential free agent signing. Yet Jensen appears to have the first crack at winning the starting center spot.
Team brass expressed their desire to get bigger, stronger and more physical in the middle of the line after trading Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco for a better sixth round draft pick. Jensen measures in at 6’4” 320 pounds after packing on ten pounds of muscle this offseason. His size and aggressive temperament would fit the Ravens and their new offensive line coach Joe D’Allesandris perfectly.
A former sixth round selection in the 2013 draft from Colorado State - Pueblo, Jensen has been a valuable backup over his first three years in the league. In addition to serving as an important blocker on special teams, he started six games at left guard in 2015, and three games between the right and left guards spots last season. Jensen has cross trained all across the offensive line in previous training camps and preseason contests.
Jensen is known as a mauling power blocker who enjoys mixing it up through the whistle, especially against the rival Steelers and Bengals. With Steve Smith Sr. now stationed in the broadcasting booth, and the offense lacking many alpha dog personalities, the Ravens could surely use some of Jensen’s nastiness as they attempt to impose their will on the opposition by transitioning back into a smash mouth style.
Filmstudy of Russell Street Report gave Ryan solid grades in four games last season. Jensen rebounded from a poor showing against Oakland in Week 4 to earn B grades in each of the next two weeks against the Redskins and Giants. In the ugly Week 7 loss to the Jets, Jensen was adequate with a C grade, according to Ken McKusick.
The Ravens have had good results when promoting backups into prominent roles lately. Former right tackle Rick Wagner was thrust into a starting spot in 2014 after serving as an eligible blocker for much of his rookie season. Wagner responded with his best season to date. Zachary Orr, a lifelong special teamer, posted a second team All-Pro year at linebacker when given an opportunity for extended playing time in 2016.
Including Jeff Mitchell, Mike Flynn and Jason Brown, the franchise has done well to develop homegrown mid round and undrafted lineman into above average centers. Of course, promoting from within does not always work out, as evidenced by Gino Gradkowski’s horrendous 2013 season. In the age of the salary cap and free agency, all teams are forced to take a chance on an inexperienced player somewhere on their depth chart.
The competition has just begun, Urschel and Skura will certainly compete with Jensen throughout the summer. However, Jensen has an advantage due to his size, strength and feisty attitude. Urschel started seven games at center in 2015, but went back to guard last season and continued filling in for Marshal Yanda at OTAs last week. His best use may be as the top backup for all three interior spots. Skura is relatively unknown after spending last year on the practice squad.
If Jensen can develop into a consistent lineman, especially through improved pass blocking, the Ravens have the makings of a strong group from left tackle to right guard. With Ronnie Stanley serving as a franchise left tackle, impressive second year man Alex Lewis settling into the left guard spot, Jensen and stalwart Marshal Yanda at right guard, Baltimore should be able to open up running lanes for Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon on the left side and in the middle regardless of who wins the right tackle job.
Jensen growing into an above average center this summer is the ideal scenario for the offensive line. In addition to the intangibles he possesses, his contract is a relatively affordable $1.8 million. With confidence in Jensen to assume the starting center spot, the Ravens would be free to devote their remaining salary cap dollars to acquiring a veteran right tackle or crucial receiver depth.
Jensen’s early lead for the starting center job in undoubtedly a positive development for the 2017 Baltimore Ravens.