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Maintaining strength of offensive line will remain a priority for Ravens this offseason

Ensuring that the trenches are fortified and stay among the league’s best is of the utmost importance.

NFL: NOV 26 Ravens at Chargers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At every level of football but especially in the NFL, which is the absolute highest achievable, games are often won and lost up front on both sides of the ball. The battle in the trenches dictates the pace and rhythm of a given game because if one unit can impose its will on the other, it will determine how efficiently an offense can move the ball or how dominant a defense can perform.

The Baltimore Ravens made their soon-to-be two-time league MVP-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson the highest-paid player in NFL history last spring when they finally inked him to a long-term extension. Protecting him and ensuring that he is set up for success is the organization’s top priority because he gives them their best chance to contend for a Super Bowl whenever he’s healthy and upright.

In 2023, the Ravens fielded the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack that led the league in rushing attempts (541), yards (2,661), and yards per game (156.5). Jackson also had his best season to date as a passer in which he set new career highs in passing yards (3,678), attempts (457), completions (307), and completion percentage (67.2).

Providing him with a dominant blocking unit is just as, if not even more important, than loading up with weapons for him to throw the ball to. Without clean pockets to operate from and rushing lanes to hit, it will be harder for him or any other skill position player to shine. The Ravens have always prioritized building a strong foundation that starts and ends with the offensive line.

“The offensive line is always going to be something that we stress here,” Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said at the season-ending press conference. “We’re going to continue to look at that every single year.”

This statement was prompted by a reporter asking a question about where the organization stands as it pertains to franchise left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who continued to struggle to stay on the field in 2023 due to knee injuries and has missed 38 games including the playoffs since 2020 due to other ailments.

“Particularly as you get older, it gets tougher and tougher for guys to stay healthy,” DeCosta said. “Unfortunately, Ronnie, no fault of his own, he has had a series of injuries that have hurt him [and] hurt his performance – the ankle and then a series of knee injuries. So, that’s definitely been a factor. I love Ronnie, he’s still a talented player.

“I think this is going to be a big offseason for him getting himself healthy [and] getting himself strong again [and] coming back in good football shape. We’ll make all those personnel decisions over the coming weeks [with] what we decide to do.”

The eight-year veteran and former first-rounder is nearly half a decade removed from his breakout 2019 season that saw him earn Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors and he’s slated to have a cap hit of $26.1 million in 2024. That figure will slightly increase to $26.6 million in 2025 but the team would only accrue a dead cap hit of $6.6 million if they move on from him following next season so the 29-year-old may very well be heading into his final year with the team, at least at his current salary.

“As far as the position in general, I definitely think ... Coach [John Harbaugh] said this in 2008 when we interviewed him. He says, ‘We’re always going to have to have a strong physical big offensive line,’ and that’s kind of bled into the culture of this place and who we are as an organization, and we’re going to continue to do that,” DeCosta said.

Thankfully for the Ravens, this year’s incoming NFL Draft class is one of the rare crops that is deeper than usual with starting-caliber offensive tackle talent. It includes prospects that can play either side of the alignment or even kick inside to guard until a tackle spot opens up while they’re still on their rookie contract. One such former college standout at the position who has been a popular projection to land in Baltimore as Stanley’s successor in several early mock drafts is the University of Arizona’s Jordan Morgan. If he falls to them late in the first round, he could take the Jonathan Ogden route and start at guard as a rookie before moving outside for the remainder of his career.

Another pressing topic as it pertains to the Ravens offensive line this offseason is the fact that both of their starting guards in 2023 are slated to be unrestricted free agents this March. Fourth-year pro John Simpson went from dark horse to a pleasant surprise when he won the starting left guard spot and performed well and with a nasty edge that had been missing from the unit for a while.

The biggest question mark of the two potential pending vacancies is whether the team decides to bring back 12-year veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler. He is fresh off his first Pro Bowl season and is not only adamant about continuing his playing career but would prefer to do it with the Ravens. According to DeCosta, there remains mutual interest and the two sides began talking about the possibility of extending his stay in Charm City towards the end of this past season.

“I think he’s been a Pro Bowler; this was his first year, but in my mind, he’s been a Pro Bowler,” DeCosta said. “[He has] a great attitude, [he’s] a great player [and] a veteran, [and he has] an awesome family. His wife, by the way, she is an unbelievable baker, but I’m really happy for Kevin.

“He’s a free agent. He’s one of those guys that we’ll continue to talk to. He and I met last week. We’ll see what that looks like in the coming weeks, but as I said, the offensive line is going to always be a preference. I know it’s not a sexy position for a lot of people – my sons included – but it’s a critical, important [position] for our team. We’ll spend a lot of resources and a lot of time talking [about] what that’s going to look like.”

DeCosta has already spent a lot of resources on the position in recent years via the draft and fortifying it through that avenue will always be their preferred method. Last year he spent sixth-round pick on former University of Oregon right tackle/guard Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu who many viewed as a project but was in contention with Simpson for the starting spot on the left side as a rookie. He also traded back into the seventh round to select former USC guard Andrew Vorhees who would’ve definitely been a lock to hear his name called on day two had he not suffered a torn ACL at the 2023 NFL Scouting combine.

The Ravens also have 2021 third-rounder Ben Cleveland, who will be playing in the final year of his rookie contract in 2024 which has been the season that several Ravens interior offensive linemen have broken out and earned big deals elsewhere the following offseason.

There’s a possibility that the Ravens opt to not bring back Simpson or Zeitler and just role with who they have on the roster already under contract and add another one in the mid-to-late rounds, especially if they’re going to prioritize retaining some of their key pending defensive free agents such as breakout defensive tackle Justin Madubuike.

The Ravens still have 2022 first-round center Tyler Linderbaum fresh off his first Pro Bowl season anchoring the middle of the unit, 10-year veteran Morgan Moses manning the right tackle spot, and a pair of quality backups in veteran Patrick Mekari and Daniel Faalele who played key rotational roles down the stretch and stepped up when the two starting tackles were banged up. As long as this unit continues to excel, the sky is the limit for Jackson and the rest Ravens’ offense for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t really subscribe to the idea of windows opening and closing, DeCosta said. I’d like to believe that with careful roster building and good drafting and development of players, the window is going to always be open.”