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Ranking backup incumbents as Ravens ponder reshaping of offensive line

Changes are coming to the Ravens offensive line. 

General manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh admitted as much at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this week with the latter acknowledging reshaping the offensive line would be “probably the most important thing we do on offense” this offseason. 

It remains to be seen just how dramatic the changes will be with Pro Bowl center Tyler Linderbaum considered the only lock from the 2023 starting group to remain next season. Pro Bowl right guard Kevin Zeitler and left guard John Simpson are free agents, and offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses carry varying degrees of concern related to health, performance, and compensation level, leaving their futures unclear despite being under contract. Stanley is currently scheduled to make $15 million and carry a salary cap number of just over $26 million in the penultimate year of his contract while Moses is scheduled to make $5.5 million and carry a cap number of just under $7 million in the final year of his deal. 

“We will have a plan,” said DeCosta, who has drafted a total of three offensive linemen in the first three rounds since taking over as general manager in 2019. “Fortunately, this is a deep draft class as well, so we’ll have a lot of different options in different rounds [and] players that we like at the offensive line position — at tackle and also guard.”

The challenge will be maintaining a high standard after Pro Football Focus ranked Baltimore’s offensive line fifth out of the 32 teams for the 2023 regular season. The Ravens also ranked ninth in team pass block win rate and fifth in team run block win rate, according to ESPN’s metrics. However you viewed the offensive line this past season, it ranked favorably in most available metrics that attempt to quantify and compare performance that’s largely subjective. 

Picking near the end of every round after an NFL-best 13-4 regular season certainly won’t help in the quest to find effective starters, especially if we’re talking about moving on from Stanley at left tackle. That’s why it’s unrealistic to assume the Ravens are going to find as many as four new starters without depending on at least one or two candidates already on the roster. 

Below is how I’d rank Baltimore’s incumbent reserve offensive linemen in order of most likely to start next season: 

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1. G Ben Cleveland

It’s now or never for the 2021 third-round pick out of Georgia to establish himself as a legitimate NFL starter in Baltimore after a disappointing beginning to his career. Though the 6-foot-6, 370-pound Cleveland has played fewer regular-season snaps over the last two seasons than he did as a rookie, he fared well in place of Zeitler at right guard over a combined three starts in 2022 and 2023 and has stayed healthy enough to practice consistently after injuries hindered his development over his first couple years. Including all guards playing at least 150 snaps last season, PFF graded Cleveland 27th overall and third in pass blocking, which was just behind Zeitler. For context, Zeitler finished 15th and Simpson 49th overall among qualified guards last year.

It was only a couple offseasons ago that Ben Powers was widely regarded as a draft disappointment before excelling in his contract year and earning a big payday in Denver. The Ravens would gladly take a similar story for Cleveland in 2024.

2. OL Patrick Mekari 

A valuable and versatile depth piece who’s started regular-season games at four different positions in his career, Mekari is unlikely to be labeled the top starting option at any spot this offseason. However, his rare ability to play each offensive line position at a respectable level coupled with the unpredictable development of rookie linemen keeps the 26-year-old veteran higher on this list than the Ravens would like to admit, especially if the offensive line changes prove to be more radical.

In a season that included Mekari making a combined seven starts between left and right tackle, PFF graded him 31st out of 81 qualified tackles. However, he typically struggles the longer he’s pressed into full-time duty and remains the optimal game-day backup.

3. G Andrew Vorhees 

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No one can say with any confidence what Vorhees will look like as an NFL lineman after he suffered a torn ACL at last year’s combine and sat out his entire rookie year. The 25-year-old is also just 17 months younger than the veteran Mekari, which raises some questions about his ceiling. Still, the Ravens liked enough of what they saw from Vorhees over his lengthy collegiate career at USC to trade a 2024 sixth-round pick to draft the 6-foot-6, 310-pound guard in the seventh round.

By the time the Ravens begin their offseason program in April, Vorhees will be 13 months removed from the knee injury and should have the opportunity to compete for the left guard job, regardless of whether Simpson returns. Admittedly, the unknown helps his ranking here, but DeCosta isn’t inclined to throw away a sixth-round pick if he didn’t have real optimism. 

4. OT Daniel Faalele

Though pressed into some emergency action at left tackle as a rookie, Faalele has really only shown potential to play right tackle and hasn’t done it as well as Moses, making it difficult to envision the Ravens moving on from the 33-year-old veteran with designs of simply giving the job to the 2022 fourth-round pick. That Baltimore moved Mekari to the right side to start in place of an injured Moses for three games last year said much about the overall pecking order. Of the 103 offensive tackles to log at least 150 snaps last season, Faalele was graded 90th overall by PFF. 

That’s not to say the 6-foot-8, 380-pound Minnesota product can’t make a big jump in his third season to put himself in the starting conversation, but he hasn’t flashed enough to be a serious part of the starting plans. 

5. G Sala Aumavae-Laulu

The sixth-round pick out of Oregon was looking like one of the best stories of the summer when he made enough of a spring impression to begin training camp as the starting left guard. However, the narrative shifted dramatically when the pads came on, and Aumavae-Laulu fell down the depth chart and struggled mightily in preseason action. That led to him being inactive for all but four games, and he didn’t take a single snap in those contests either. 

What was most telling was the 6-foot-5, 325-pound guard not even seeing any action in the meaningless Week 18 tilt with Pittsburgh, which seemed like a logical opportunity to rest Simpson and see what kind of progress Aumavae-Laulu had made after a full season of practice. That leads one to believe he has a ton of work to do this offseason just to make the 53-man roster, let alone earn a starting job. 

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