While the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals have proven to be the rare outlier with their subpar starting offensive line, the vast majority of championship teams and top contenders in the NFL are built on the foundation of having stout play in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The old cliché “everything starts and ends upfront” will be on the forefront of the Baltimore Ravens minds this offseason as they construct their roster in preparation for the 2022 season.
In his end-of-the-season press conference last Friday, General Manager Eric DeCosta expressed the team’s intentions on fortifying and upgrading both their offensive and defensive lines in the coming months. He even went as far as to say that the offensive line will be one of “the points of emphasis this year”.
“For us to be the very best offense we can be, we’ve got to have a strong, commanding offensive line that can control people at the point of attack,” said DeCosta.
Former league MVP Lamar Jackson missing the last four games of the season certainly played a significant role in the team faltering down the stretch and ultimately finishing 8-9. However, even before he suffered his ankle injury, the lack of consistency in pass protection, particularly at offensive tackle, was problematic.
DeCosta admitted that banking on Ronnie Stanley to make a full recovery and be ready to go for 2021 based on the information he received during the crux of roster construction time last offseason was a mistake on his part. The insurance policy of Alejandro Villanueva, who was originally brought in to play right tackle but was forced to return to his natural position on the blindside, didn’t pan out the way they had hoped and Patrick Mekari battled injuries for chunks of the year.
There are a multitude of methods that teams can use to reconstruct, fortify or completely overhaul position groups or entire units in one offseason. DeCosta outlined some in his presser including trades, the draft, and free agency.
After watching their attempt to win back-to-back Super Bowls came up well short due to injuries and a lack of quality on the offensive line, the Kansas City Chiefs rebuilt their blocking unit using all three avenues. Although they came up a game short of making a third straight title came appearance, their offensive line wasn’t at fault and went from a glaring weakness to overwhelming strength in one season. They signed Joe Thuney to a market-setting deal, drafted a pair of highly-rated rookies, got Lucas Niang back after he sat out in 2020 due to COVID concerns, and acquired Orlando Brown Jr. from the Ravens via trade.
The Ravens have traditionally been a draft-and-develop team that strategically delves into free agency by pouncing on salary cap casualties from other teams or signing veterans after they will no longer impact the compensatory pick formula. They did that last year by signing guard Kevin Zeitler days after he was released by the New York Giants and outside linebacker Justin Houston just before training camp opened up.
“If the right player becomes available, we’ll probably make a move,” DeCosta said. “We were very happy last year when (guard) Kevin Zeitler became available and we pounced. That’s kind of what our mindset is. If we’re in the draft and there’s a guy at 14 and we like him, we’ll take him. If we’re comfortable trading back to 20, thinking a guy will be there who is an offensive lineman, we’ll take him.”
He has also shown that he isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on a trade for a player at the right price under the right circumstances to address one of their needs. Last year he traded for tight end Josh Oliver in exchange for a conditional late-round pick and the year before that he acquired Calais Campbell for a fifth-round draft selection.
“If there happens to be a cap casualty on March 18 and that guy looks like he can make our team better, we’ll try to swoop in. That’s basically our mindset,” DeCosta said. “If a team calls and offers a guy and we have the draft capital to make that happen, potentially that’s something we might look at. There’s a lot of different ways to build the team.”
The Ravens are loaded with early draft capital this year including nine expected picks in the first four rounds. DeCosta said that the team will potentially add two new offensive linemen to the mix. While one or possibly both will be at tackle, center could be another option if Bradley Bozeman departs in free agency. The Ravens have been a popular projected landing spot for consensus top center prospect Tyler Linderbaum in early mock drafts.
In addition to upgrading their trenches on offense, DeCosta divulged the team’s desire to get younger in the trenches on defense as well.
“We need to get younger, for sure,” he said. “This year, we had a lot of grizzly warhorses up there, upfront.”
Both Campbell and Brandon Williams are slated to be free agents and Campbell is not yet committed to continuing his play career. DeCosta and the six-time Pro Bowler spoke after the season ended and plan on having more discussions.
That leaves 10-year veteran Derek Wolfe as the most seasoned member of the bunch under contract heading into the offseason. The soon-to-be 32-year-old Wolfe is also coming off an injury-riddled 2021 campaign in which he didn’t suit up once and could possibly be mulling retirement as well.
Even though they believe that Campbell can still play at a high level and proved as much in 2021 at 35-years-old, the Ravens like the potential of some of the young defensive linemen currently on the roster and plan to add to it this offseason.
“I’m excited about some of the other guys we have, as well, that we think will make the next step,” said DeCosta. “I would say that the defensive line is definitely something that as we looked out two years ago and last year, we felt like 2022 would probably be the year that we would have to find some more young guys.”
The Ravens began the process of replenishing their ranks in the defensive trenches in 2020 with the selection of Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington in the middle rounds that year. Madubuike didn’t make the major leap in year two that some had predicted but he still consistently showed flashes and Washington showed a lot of progress from his rookie year according to DeCosta.
This year’s crop of incoming defensive linemen prospects appears to be deep with the kind of players that the Ravens need more of on the interior of their defensive front. They received a first-hand look at some of the top backfield penetrators in the 2022 class during the week of practice leading up to the Reese’s Senior Bowl as well as the game itself last week.
The Ravens are a franchise whose front office does their best to build rosters able to contend consistently and try to supply their coaching staff with the requisite pieces to further those goals. If DeCosta says that they plan to upgrade and improve the foundation of their offense and defense, the job will get done in a fiscally responsible manner.