Marshal Yanda's decision ranks as Ravens' biggest offseason issue

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens’ top pass rusher is scheduled to become a free agent and Baltimore fans are abuzz about the possibility of landing a playmaking wide receiver like A.J. Green who could complement quarterback Lamar Jackson.

But the most pressing situation for the team that finished with the NFL’s best record is Marshal Yanda’s future. The eight-time Pro Bowl guard made it clear to the team that he’s taking time to decide about whether to retire or play another season.

If Yanda returns, the Ravens will bring back every starter from the league’s highest-scoring offense and best rushing team. If Yanda calls it quits, Baltimore will lose its anchor along an underrated offensive line, leaving a huge void in the middle of it.

After Baltimore’s 28-12 divisional playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, coach John Harbaugh gave the 35-year-old Yanda a hug and told him he’s hoping he’ll return.

“When you’re a Hall of Fame type of guy and you’re a lineman, it’s really important to finish strong in your career, to play Hall of Fame football at the end, because that’s when everybody is watching. And he’s doing that,” Harbaugh said. "So I’m all for him playing Hall of Fame football for another year if he so chooses, and I did tell him that.”

Why does Yanda’s status rank above all others? It’s one that Baltimore doesn’t control. Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon, who led the team with 9.5 sacks, is set to become a free agent, but the Ravens can use the franchise tag to keep him, although it would be costly (between $16 million and $18 million).

Losing Yanda would represent the biggest downgrade for a team looking to rebound from an early playoff exit after going 14-2. The expectations are that the Ravens will improve at wide receiver and inside linebacker whether it’s through free agency or the draft. If Yanda walks away after 13 seasons, Baltimore would take a significant step back at right guard. It’s difficult to believe the Ravens can find someone to play at Yanda’s high level immediately.

Yanda is the second-best offensive lineman in franchise history behind Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. He was named second-team All-Pro this season after allowing one sack this season and opening holes for the most prolific rushing attack in NFL history. When asked why undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari replaced injured center Matt Skura so seamlessly for the second half of the season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman made the point that it certainly helped that Yanda played beside Mekari.

“Yanda has been one of the best guards that I’ve seen in my career over these last 10 years,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said earlier this season.

Yanda acknowledged that he thought about retiring toward the end of the 2018 season but came back because he finished the season healthy. He then agreed to add another year to his contract (he’s signed through 2020), although he acted like this was his final season.

Known for being the grizzled, old-school lineman, Yanda joked around more than ever before. After the Ravens’ win over the New England Patriots, Yanda walked into the locker room and lifted up general manager Eric DeCosta in what Harbaugh later described as a “double suplex wrestling move.” Yanda went out of his comfort zone even more when he took over for Terrell Suggs to give the speech to teammates in the final on-field huddle before games.

Many have tried to read into Yanda’s actions to predict what he’ll do, though he has declined to talk about it. Some feel he’s been having his own personal farewell tour, bringing family members to road games. After the playoff loss, he posed with relatives for pictures on the field of M&T Bank Stadium following what could be his final game.

While no timetable has ever been given regarding Yanda, he’ll likely want to inform the team of his decision by March so the Ravens know whether they need to address a starting spot on the offensive line in free agency.

“He’ll do what’s right for his family,” Harbaugh said, "and whatever he does, we’ll respect it."