Entering the 2018 season there were storylines about the possible battle at starting quarterback. That turned out to be a moot point with Joe Flacco being the unquestioned starter. However, another position battle has been quietly brewing at center between Matt Skura and Alex Lewis.
As of right now, it looks like Skura is the leader at the position. Lewis has been primarily taking snaps at left guard, as Marshal Yanda has returned at right guard. James Hurst has slid from right guard to right tackle, pushing Orlando Brown Jr. to the first reserve at tackle. Ronnie Stanley is the starter at left tackle.
“It’s great to have Marshal [Yanda] back – always,” Hurst said of having Yanda back on the line. “He’s an incredible player, incredible leader, too. Just to have that veteran presence that’s played so well for so long [is important]. We’re really glad to have him back. It gives us more depth, gets us back to full strength. We’re excited about that, to be able to move guys around and start thinking about, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do Week 1.’ So it’s exciting to have him back for sure. I’m really happy. It’s obviously great to play next to him.”
Yanda has made 135 starts in his career along the offensive line of the Ravens. His health is key to what Baltimore could accomplish in both the running and passing games. With his return, it further complicates what the starting lineup will look like outside of where he and Stanley will play. It also gives Baltimore a great deal of flexibility to place their offensive linemen at different spots.
“I think just trying to be coachable, understanding that everyone has a role on the team,” Hurst said of being versatile along the offensive line. “If you’re not a starter, you’re a backup. If you’re not starting, you’re going to have to be able to play all positions. We only dress seven on gameday, so [it’s about] just having that mindset of, ‘Hey, I’m going to do the best I can for the team. I’m going to play my role as well as I can and work to get better every day.’”
Hurst started all 16 games at left guard last season with the absence of Lewis. According to Pro Football Focus, Hurst graded out at 55.1, ranking as the 62nd ranked guard in the NFL. He also signed a four-year, $17.5 million deal during the offseason, meaning that he could be seeing a larger role with the Ravens.
Things could be changing soon for Baltimore at center and it all depends Brown Jr.’s ability to wrestle the starting role at right tackle from Hurst. Though some may argue that if Hurst doesn’t win the job, he will be on the bench, that may not be the case. Hurst could slide over to left guard and push Lewis to the starting center role. Hurst has also played left tackle, lining up at four different positions on the line.
Lewis has been Baltimore’s best option at left guard and before injuring his shoulder in 2017, he was set to be the starter at the position. In 2016, Lewis had a 96.6 pass blocking efficiency rating, per PFF. If Baltimore goes with Lewis at left guard, they are maximizing the talent that they have at both left guard and center.
Baltimore could decide to go with the larger Lewis at center, who has shown the ability to get leverage on the inside against larger defensive tackles. One specific instance of this is during the first joint practice against the Los Angeles Rams where Lewis was able to seal a running lane against Ndamukong Suh. Skura had some trouble feeling the pressure against the larger defensive lineman.
What Skura lacks in size and brute strength is his experience and knowledge of the center position. Skura started in 12 games at guard last season, rating 53.4 per PFF. While at Duke, Skura was the starting center from 2014-2015. Now he will slide to his natural position, where he could be the starter.
“We’re really excited, especially after last year,” Skura said. “Me coming in on a short notice and still being able to play well and at a high level, I think, really helps out, as well as depth, and it shows that we can also move guys around. James [Hurst] went from playing mostly tackle in the preseason to starting all 16 games at left guard. Myself, I played left guard, center, right guard, all through the preseason and ended up having to play right guard all year. So, I think it definitely helps [having stability], and I know we’re really excited.”
Regardless of who the starting center is on September 9, Baltimore has much more depth in comparison to last season. Lewis is back at left guard, Yanda is back at right guard and Brown Jr. or Hurst could be the starter at right tackle. If Brown Jr. wins the starting position it could slide Hurst over and push Skura to the bench at center or it couldn’t. Either way, it gives Baltimore a problem that they like to have.