Oher is key to upgrading Ravens' offensive line

February 10, 2011|By Mike Preston

There are fewer options this time around, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is still optimistic about upgrading the offensive line, especially at the tackle position.

The Ravens fired offensive line coach John Matsko at the end of the season because the Ravens had trouble protecting quarterback Joe Flacco and establishing a consistently strong running game.

But almost any discussion about reshaping this unit has to start at left offensive tackle, where second-year player Michael Oher struggled in his first season as a starter. Oher, though, played well on the right side as a rookie.

"So, are you asking me if Michael Oher can't be a successful left tackle in this league?" asked Newsome in defense of his former top draft pick out of Mississippi?

No, but the Ravens had a better offensive line in 2009 when Oher was on the right and right offensive tackle Marshal Yanda was back at right guard. With Oher and Yanda, it gave the Ravens a strong, physical presence on the right side.

The Ravens had to shuffle linemen because former starting left tackle Jared Gaither missed the entire season after injuring his back in training camp. Gaither's status for next season is questionable because of current negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement between the players association and owners, but the Ravens would be fools to count on Gaither for 2011.

There is no trust between Gaither and the front office, and Gaither's work ethic has been as questionable in the NFL as it was when he played at the University of Maryland. There are many inside The Castle who don't think he will return.

So, the two options for finding a tackle remain free agency and the draft. In free agency, there are some quality left tackles like New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod (Towson University) and Pittsburgh's Willie Colon.

But there is a rub.

"Because of the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement, you don't know if the four-year guys or the six-year guys are going to become unrestricted free agents," Newsome said. "We're operating as if it's business as usual.

"We've already had our personnel meetings and draft meetings, and our coaches are already working on schemes and formations with some of the players participating. If we need a left tackle, though, we'll find one."

There is always the draft. With the No. 26 pick overall, most of the premiere left tackles like Colorado's Nate Solder, Boston College's Anthony Castonzo and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi will likely be gone by the time the Ravens pick in the first round.

But Newsome isn't sweating.

"If you're asking me if we have some left offensive tackles rated that high on our draft board that will be around when we pick and can play many years in the NFL, the answer is yes," Newsome said. "You can find a quality left tackle in any round. We found one in the supplemental draft in Jared Gaither."

It will come down to economics and timing. The Ravens haven't given up on Oher on the left side, either. Overall, he played reasonably well. According to former Ravens Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden, it takes three years to learn to play the position adequately.

Oher, though, appears a natural on the right side. He doesn't have the long arms and body frame to play a finesse game on the left side.

He's more of a brute and bully, which is what the right side is all about. Ideally, the Ravens would like to team him with Yanda.

But the Ravens have other questions as well. Even though center Matt Birk said he will play another season, the 13-year veteran appeared slow and beaten down at the end of the season.

If the Ravens can't find a new tackle, that means Yanda stays put, and the Ravens have a hole at right guard. Chris Chester started there most of last season, but was easily the weakest player on the offensive line. Left guard Ben Grubbs was the most consistent of the group, but hasn't played up to his first-round status of four years ago.

"Under the situation, John [head coach John Harbaugh] tried to put the best five players out there that he could, and I don't think that is going to change," Newsome said. "We still have Oniel Cousins in the mix at tackle, and he is past that rough offseason from a year ago.

"But I'd have to agree that when we had Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda on that right side, they were a good, strong physical, tandem."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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