OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- What’s the best way to improve the NFL’s worst passing game this offseason?
“One of the things we have to do is get better up front with pass protection,” DeCosta said after the season. “The offensive line, in general, really battled versus some adversity this year. But pass protection is going to be a factor.”
The common denominator in why the Ravens have managed just 32 points in Jackson’s three playoff losses has been pressure on the quarterback. Jackson was hit or under duress on a 40 of 137 total dropbacks (29%) when Baltimore fell to the Los Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills in the postseason. In those situations, Jackson completed 24.1% of his throws (7-for-29 for 103 yards).
In the 17-3 divisional playoff loss in Buffalo, Jackson wasn’t striking fear with his legs. He was the one scrambling for his life, repeatedly trying to elude pass rushers crashing through the middle and from the right side.
“Our offensive line is, to me, a primary piece to what we try to do, and we need to build the very best offensive line that we can,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "To me, it’s a major priority. It’s a major emphasis, [and] it will be a major focal point, always, in how we coach, teach, and how we build the personnel."
The Ravens plummeted in Pro Football Focus’ offensive line rankings, falling from No. 2 in 2019 to No. 16 last season. This could easily get chalked up to Baltimore losing All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8. But the Ravens regressed at center (where errant snaps turned into adventures), failed to adequately replace retired Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and lacked a proven No. 3 tackle.
The only lineman guaranteed to start the season at the same spot as last year is Stanley, who signed a five-year, $98.75 million extension and is expected to be fully recovered by training camp. At left guard, Bradley Bozeman fits well with his ability to pull but he could be in the mix at center. He also tied for a team-high six sacks allowed, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
At center, Matt Skura was benched after poor snaps and was replaced by Patrick Mekari, who played well until he struggled to get the ball back to Jackson in the pistol formation. One of Mekari’s snaps in the divisional playoff game sailed over the head of Jackson, who got a concussion recovering it. Baltimore hasn’t heavily invested in the center position since Matt Birk retired after the 2012 Super Bowl season.
At right guard, Baltimore initially had rookie third-round pick Tyre Phillips step into Yanda’s spot. After Phillips couldn’t stay healthy, the Ravens went with Mekari before finishing the season with Ben Powers.
Orlando Brown Jr. was expected to move back to right tackle after filling in at left tackle for the injured Stanley. But Brown tweeted “I’m a LEFT tackle” on Jan. 29. The Ravens likely wouldn’t trade Brown unless another team offered a first-round pick because he’s a two-time Pro Bowl right tackle and they don’t have an immediate replacement. His social media post suggests he could be playing his last season in Baltimore in 2021, the final year of his rookie contract.
OT Orlando Brown Jr. says he's a LEFT tackle pic.twitter.com/3p2AcD5— Orlando Brown Jr. (@ZEUS_78) Jan. 29, 2021
The Ravens need to upgrade the interior of their line and look for the future replacement for Brown at right tackle. While run blocking is a given for a team that has led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons, Baltimore also wants linemen who can pass protect and limit mistakes. Last season, the Ravens allowed Jackson to get pressured on 22.7% of his passes (17th in the NFL) and their offense committed 57 penalties (third-most in the league), including 35 by the offensive linemen.
"What I like about the offensive line is we have a lot of really good, nice, young players,” DeCosta said. "We’re not sure who those guys are going to be [and if] they are going to emerge and be the starters for us, but we’ve got good depth -- what I would call shallow depth. We have some guys that can play. A lot of guys have played for us -- a lot of young players are emerging talents. We’ll also have a chance, I think, with the draft and free agency to augment those positions as well.”
How the Ravens can address the interior of the offensive line this offseason:
Unrestricted free agents: Joe Thuney, who received the franchise tag from the New England Patriots last year, has all the makings of being a top target for Baltimore. Thuney has all the attributes that the Ravens covet. He’s durable. He’s disciplined. He’s a high-character player. He’s a two-time Super Bowl champion. Thuney isn’t Yanda but he would fill the void better than anyone did last season. The top free-agent guard (Washington’s Brandon Scherff) and center (Green Bay’s Corey Linsley) will likely get re-signed.
Salary-cap cuts: The Ravens prefer to sign players who get cut because they don’t negate compensatory picks. Right guard Kevin Zeitler could draw interest if the New York Giants cut him to free up $12 million in cap space. Zeitler has been one of the best pass-blocking guards over the last nine seasons, although he slipped last season and could be declining at age 31. Other cap cuts could include Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen, a former Ravens draft pick, and guard-center Nick Easton.
In the draft: Baltimore hasn’t selected an interior offensive linemen in the first two rounds since 2012, when it picked Kelechi Osemele in the second round. The only guard that ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects in the first round is USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker. But Kiper currently has Vera-Tucker going in the top half of the first round and long before the Ravens are on the clock with the No. 27 overall pick.
“I would be really surprised if he was there at that particular point,” Kiper said. Kiper’s clear-cut top center is Alabama’s Landon Dickerson, who is a second-round prospect.