For the second year in a row, the starting left guard spot on the Baltimore Ravens offensive line is an open competition that will go to the most consistent and deserving candidate. Just as was the case last year, 2021 third-rounder Ben Cleveland was the early favorite to win the job at the onset of the offseason but that is no longer the case again.
In 2022, it was Ben Powers who got a head start on Cleveland in training camp as a result of multiple failed attempts at the conditioning test. The 2019 fourth-rounder went from being on the trade block and potential roster bubble to having a breakout season after he seized the starting left guard spot and wound up pricing himself out of town in free agency this past March.
This year there’s not only one but two dark horse candidates that are ahead of Cleveland in the competition and it doesn’t look like he even appears to be in the running at this point. He’s been cross-training at right tackle and was listed as veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler’s backup on the team’s first unofficial depth chart.
The two players that are in tight competition to replace Powers, who cashed in with the Denver Broncos, are fourth-year pro John Simpson who was claimed off waivers late last season and rookie Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu who was selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft out of Oregon.
They took turns running with the first-team offense in the first two weeks of training camp with the first-year player receiving the initial bulk of snaps. But, it appears that Simpson might have pulled ahead in the race for the time being. He received the start in the Ravens preseason-opening win over the Philadelphia Eagles this past Saturday and is still running with the first team offense in practice for the second week in a row.
“John is making a good case for himself,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “He was very solid. His footwork, fundamentals, assignments were all good. He was physical. [He’s] a very aggressive player, in terms of looking for work in the offensive line.”
Simpson comes with 35 career game appearances and 21 career starts under his belt from his time with the Las Vegas Raiders who originally drafted him in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Clemson.
He narrowly out-snapped Aumavae-Laulu (37-33) who Harbaugh said “did a nice job, too” in his first-ever live NFL action, although he was called for a facemask penalty late in the game that negated a nice 14-yard reception.
“It’s just [that] he’s a rookie, [so] it’s new for him a little bit,” Harbaugh said. “But I expect him to improve a lot from the first game to the second game.”
The competition is by no means settled at this point. The fact that a Day 3 rookie who was viewed by many pundits as a developmental prospect before this year’s draft is even in contention is remarkable in of itself.
“They’re both going to get the reps,” Harbaugh said. “If it settles down sooner, great. If it takes longer, it probably means both guys are playing well.”
Cleveland hasn’t been officially ruled out of the running and he still has time to change the coaching staff’s mind about giving him a chance to earn the vacated starting spot. Once again, it will be hard for him to close the gap and gain an equal footing with the team’s current front runners at the moment.