by Garrett Downing & Ryan Mink
Mink: The Ravens' offensive line underwent a sizeable overhaul this offseason as there will be a different Week 1 starter in four of the five spots, making it one of the unit's biggest question marks heading into camp. But I believe this unit will be dramatically better in 2021 than it was in 2020.
Let's go across the projected starting line, starting with the newcomers. The Ravens traded Orlando Brown Jr. (essentially for Odafe Oweh) and signed veteran Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bowler. Villanueva must transition from being a left tackle to the right side, but I think he could actually be an upgrade in some regards, especially in a more offensive tackle-friendly offense than he had in Pittsburgh. Kevin Zeitler is a clear upgrade over the combination of players the Ravens used last year at right guard.
Bradley Bozeman is a step up at center, particularly if he solves the snapping snafus. He feels center is his best position and he was already good at left guard. Left guard is the only starting spot up for grabs and I like the potential of Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland or Tyre Phillips there. As opposed to Bozeman, Powers and Cleveland are both natural guards who excelled there in college.
The success of the line largely hinges on a successful return from surgery by left tackle and anchor Ronnie Stanley. Stanley has progressed well in his rehab and considering that he's so naturally athletic and such a polished technician, I don't think he'll need a long time to get up to speed and back to his dominant self.
The Ravens also have excellent depth. Even if they don't land starting jobs, Phillips, Patrick Mekari, Greg Mancz, Michael Schofield and Andre Smith all have significant NFL game experience that is very valuable in case of emergency. Plus, Ja'Wuan James is potentially waiting in the wings.
With new pieces and position shifts, Baltimore's offensive line just needs time to gel, which it will get during training camp (especially once Stanley returns). Once that happens, this offensive line should give Lamar Jackson more time to make the passing game flourish, as well as strengthen Baltimore's already powerful ground attack.
Downing: This is a great question and something I expect General Manager Eric DeCosta and Head Coach John Harbaugh to spend a good amount of time discussing at roster cutdown time. Certainly a big piece of the consideration for bubble players is how they contribute on special teams, and that will be a factor in this decision. For example, Proche would seal his spot on the roster if he wins the starting punt returner job and Boykin might be the best gunner on the team. Those roles will be part of the decision. The health of the roster is another factor to consider. Veteran tight end Nick Boyle is currently sidelined with a knee injury, and if that lingers, rookie Ben Mason could end up on the 53-man roster.
In general, I would lean towards keeping an additional receiver over the tight end/fullback role that Mason will likely play. The Ravens already have Patrick Ricard in that role, so it would be tough for Mason to crack the lineup if Ricard and the tight ends are all healthy. This will be a position battle to watch throughout training camp, and it will likely come down to how Mason, Proche and Boykin perform throughout the preseason.
Mink: Eric DeCosta proved he's not done this week by signing veteran defensive end Chris Smith. DeCosta will continue to evaluate the roster as training camp progresses. I wrote about Justin Houston last week, and I'll continue to say that I wouldn't rule that move out. The two sides could come to a financial agreement at some point during training camp.
Downing: This sounds like a question from someone who has spent time watching All-22 tape! From a big-picture standpoint, the Ravens offense won't become significantly different this season. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman will still use a heavy dose of multiple tight end sets, and the Ravens will likely run the ball better than any team in the league. Roman's system utilizes lots of motion before the snap, and that will continue as a way to free up receivers and tight ends in the passing game. From an audible standpoint, I don't expect the Ravens to go too deep down that route. They already have options built into plays because of quarterback Lamar Jackson's running ability, so they aren't going to transition to a check-based system that some teams use with veteran quarterbacks (think Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning).
The Ravens will continue to add elements to an offense that has been one of the best in the league over the last two years. They want to spread out defenses by taking more shots down the field and hitting more big plays, but don't confuse that with a massive system change.