John Simpson wins starting left guard competition for Ravens

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Two weeks before the season opener against the Houston Texans, the Ravens have determined who will line up as their starting left guard.

They left little doubt during Saturday’s preseason finale at Tampa Bay by resting John Simpson with the other four offensive line starters while sixth-round rookie Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu started and played 48 snaps, struggling noticeably at a few different points. Though viewed by many as the favorite entering spring workouts, 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland never appeared to be in serious contention for the left guard spot this summer and has instead practiced at right guard and right tackle in hopes of making the team as a reserve.

“John’s going to be the starter. He’s earned that, so you guys got your news flash there,” said head coach John Harbaugh after the 26-20 loss to the Buccaneers. “I think I was pretty clear. John deserves it. He’s had a great camp — that and physical. I just love the way he played. Then with ‘Sala,’ he’s going to be just fine. He’s going to contribute.”

A 2020 fourth-round pick out of Clemson, Simpson carried the most experience of the candidates vying for the left guard job after starting 21 regular-season games for Las Vegas over the last three seasons and every game for the Raiders during the 2021 campaign. However, he struggled immensely last season and was benched in Week 3 before eventually being released in early December.

The 6-foot-4, 330-pound guard spent the remainder of the 2022 season on Baltimore’s practice squad and signed a reserve-future deal with the Ravens in January. Now, Simpson will line up between former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and ascending center Tyler Linderbaum as the replacement for Ben Powers, who signed a four-year, $52 million contract with Denver in March.

“I came in and I feel like I had zero confidence, and I had to work through that, and it wasn’t easy,” Simpson said. “Every day, I try to take one step to get better. If it’s 1%, 2%, 3%, 100%, anything is better than nothing. I try to look at it like that and just try to get better every day. They’ve been helping me with my confidence too and just helping me critique my craft.”

The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Aumavae-Laulu emerged as a serious candidate for the left guard job during spring workouts and worked with the starters during mandatory minicamp in June and in the first couple weeks of training camp. However, it became apparent that Simpson had taken a clear lead in the competition when he continued to practice as the first-string left guard after the first preseason game while Aumavae-Laulu, a University of Oregon product, remained with the second unit.

Of course, Simpson, 26, beginning the season as the starter comes with no guarantees that he’ll keep the job all season as Aumavae-Laulu continues to develop.

“Sala is kind of what you would expect,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done really well. He moves his feet well. He’s very physical at times, and then again, he’s a rookie. You get fired up for a guy, and you’ve got to remember that this is the first time these guys are playing at this speed and at this level of communication and this level of scheme, so I think the sky’s the limit for him. He’s got a great future. He’s going to be a part of it this year. We need to get him ready to play soon.”

Simpson will now become the sixth different Week 1 starter at left guard for the Ravens over the last seven seasons. Bradley Bozeman was the only left guard to start an opener in back-to-back years (2019 and 2020) over that time.

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