As soon as the 2008 season ended, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome had two major goals for building the Ravens. He wanted a right offensive tackle and improved play and depth in the secondary, particularly at cornerback.
The verdict is out on both, but the Ravens might have acquired the final piece of what could become one of the most dominant offensive lines in the NFL. Once the Ravens knew they had a quarterback in Joe Flacco last season, the rest was obvious. They selected Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher with their No. 1 pick in April to help Flacco stay upright.
Despite shuffling offensive linemen in training camp and through preseason games because of various injuries, the starting group has remained impressive.
"You have the quarterback, so you have to make sure you can protect him," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "That's why we went after [Orlando] Pace and did some other things, and then we eventually got Michael Oher.
"I like our athleticism, and another thing I like is our toughness, and how physical they have become," Newsome said. "They take pride in dominating an opponent. I don't know what their limit is with the offense, but they can become really good. We're just scratching the surface, and having [center Matt] Birk in the middle has made them even better."
Building a team through the offensive line is a smart move. The Ravens got away from that philosophy soon after the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore for the 1996 season. And instead of finding athletic linemen who could run, the Ravens always seemed to sign players who basically could only block straight ahead.
But that's not the case anymore. The Ravens can block with power, and they are agile enough to pull around the corner, trap-block or get downfield on a screen. Birk, a center signed by the Ravens during the offseason, is the elder statesman at 33.
The next oldest is guard-center Chris Chester at 26. The rest are still babies.
And that's what has the Ravens so excited. With Flacco starting just his second year, the production should only increase. Maybe the Ravens don't have the big-name wide receiver, but a lot of teams don't have an offensive line as young and as talented as the Ravens do.
The left side is more technical than the right with tackle Jared Gaither and guard Ben Grubbs, both in their third seasons. Gaither has the perfect body for a left tackle, and Grubbs is the protoypical guard.
"Ben definitely plays at a high level, and that's no accident," Birk said. "He epitomizes what you want in an offensive lineman. He has a lot of pride. He has toughness. He has everything. His physical talent sets him apart. He's athletic. He's got all the tools. He pushes himself. He does everything well."
The right side is all about demeanor. Chester is holding down the guard spot for third-year player Marshal Yanda, but when Yanda and Oher are in the lineup, you have two nasty, mean guys. Because most teams are right-handed in the NFL, you want these types of players on that side because that's where you usually run the ball.
And then there's Birk. He has more Pro Bowl appearances than most of these guys have years in the league. Birk is the consummate professional. He just works and works and works ...
"The Pro Bowl is the ultimate measurement for an offensive lineman," Grubbs said. "I just hope that when I'm finished, I can have half as many as Matt Birk."
The Ravens also have versatility. Yanda can play guard or tackle, and Chester can play center or guard. Oher can play at either tackle. What this group doesn't have is depth. The team doesn't have a legitimate No. 3 tackle, and tackles have missed significant playing time the past three seasons because of injuries.
The Ravens signed guard-tackle Tony Moll from the Green Bay Packers last week. He isn't in the class with the starters, but the Ravens are hoping he is at least serviceable. Hopefully, they won't have to use him.
Because if this starting group stays healthy, the Ravens should be competitive for many years to come.