Unofficially, the Ravens might as well call it their version of The Marshall Plan.
Heading into the 2011 NFL draft, it's no secret Baltimore would like to beef up its offensive line, a unit that struggled at times last year to protect quarterback Joe Flacco and run the ball effectively in short yardage. And ideally, they'd do it by finding another gem like Marshal Yanda, whom the Ravens drafted out of Iowa in the third round of the 2007 draft.
Yanda wasn't exactly a highly coveted prospect that year — 11 offensive linemen were selected before the Ravens grabbed him with the 86th pick. He didn't have eye-popping numbers at the combine, and there were questions about whether his body type would translate into NFL success. But Yanda, who in the past two seasons has emerged as one of the NFL's best players at his position, had some intangibles the Ravens fell in love with right away.
"He played every position but center at Iowa, so you knew he was smart, and he was the toughest lineman I've ever looked at on film," said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "He had tremendous core strength. You never saw guys, even bigger guys, move him off the ball. He didn't have the typical body type. He had no butt, and he stood straight up, but you couldn't knock him back because he was just country strong."
Yanda started 12 games at tackle as a rookie, then was moved to guard the following year. After a knee injury sidelined him for much of 2008, he returned the following year and blossomed into one of the NFL's best run blockers. Now an unrestricted free agent, the Ravens have said it's a priority to re-sign him once there is a new collective bargaining agreement. In the meantime, finding another player like him with a value pick would be ideal, especially with Jared Gaither's status a mystery.
Eric DeCosta, the Ravens director of player personnel, said that when people talk about the Ravens needing to acquire more "playmakers" on offense, they're generally talking about wide receivers or running backs. But an offensive lineman can just easily fit that definition.
"You could have an offensive tackle who, on the last series of the game, you're trying to put the game away and he pancakes a defensive end three times in a row," DeCosta said. "In my mind, a playmaker is just a guy who can make a critical play at an important moment in a game."
Fortunately for the Ravens, there does appear to be depth in this offensive line class, even though no offensive lineman seems likely to get snatched up in the first five picks.
"There's not your top-five [pick], your Jake Long or Joe Thomas-type guy out there," Hortiz said. "But, the collective unit of them is similar to years past where there's a good stack of players. In the second round, you're going to get an opportunity to take a good one. In the third round, [you will have a chance]. I would say the depth is pretty solid. It's senior-heavy."
Would the Ravens consider using their first-round selection on an offensive lineman? It's possible. In 2007, the same draft in which they grabbed Yanda, the Ravens selected right guard Ben Grubbs in the first round, and he has been a very good player who could still morph into a great one. Whomever they select, it's likely to be someone who can play multiple positions. Yanda, Grubbs and Michael Oher have all moved around on the offensive line at times, and versatility is important to both John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
"Some of that is athleticism, but it's also intelligence," Hortiz said. "We like that flexibility. ... Guys get so beat up on the line. That's the one position where you're really going to take a beating. If you think about some of the leg whips those guys see, or guys falling on them, they have to have some flexibility. They have to be able to play through the dings because they're going to get dinged."
The two highest-rated linemen on the board this year are offensive tackles — Anthony Castonzo of Boston College and Tryon Smith of Southern California — and they're likely to be long gone by the time the Ravens are on the clock with the 26th pick. But outside of those two players, a number of lineman could slide down the board to the point where their value might be too good to pass up.
Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi, the Outland Trophy winner, is like a taller version of Yanda in some ways — a 6-foot-7, 315-pound bulldozer with a mean streak. There are several mock drafts that have him slipping to the end of the first round. Colorado's Nate Solder is another mountain of a man (6-foot-9, 315 pounds) who, in addition to having long arms and great feet (he's a former tight end) has received high marks for his work ethic and his character. Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod would also be an intriguing selection, considering the success the Ravens have had picking linemen from the Southeastern Conference.