Mike Preston: Ravens must protect Flacco and Rice

Re-signing Yanda should be team's first step

July 25, 2011|By Mike Preston

As the NFL introduced a new collective bargaining agreement, the Ravens bid farewell to several veteran players.

It was Black Monday in Baltimore, as the Ravens cut receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee.

The departure of McGahee was expected, but the release of Mason, Heap and Gregg was surprising. The Ravens saved about $18 to $20 million in salaries and became a younger and leaner team.

But even with the departure of such former Pro Bowl players, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's top priority should be improving the offensive line.

We're all aware that Heap was perhaps quarterback Joe Flacco's best friend on the team and Mason was Flacco's security blanket.

But the top two stars of this offense are Flacco and running back Ray Rice, both young and a year or two away from their prime. The Ravens have to protect their top two stars, and that means building up an offensive line that struggled last season.

The Ravens should immediately try to re-sign fifth-year offensive tackle/guard Marshal Yanda to a long-term contract or find a suitable replacement such as New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod or Pittsburgh Steelers right offensive tackle Willie Colon.

There is a good chance the Ravens can re-sign Heap or Mason. Both know they are in the twilight of their careers and have made Baltimore their second home. They know the Ravens are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and neither has won a championship.

The Ravens would probably miss Mason more than Heap because the Ravens have two good young tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, but they couldn't replace their leadership in the locker room. Gregg would probably re-sign here as well, but New York Jets coach Rex Ryan probably called him Monday evening as soon as he was released.

Gregg's departure, though, would be no huge loss, not with young backups such as Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones, Lamar Divens and Brandon McKinney. As for McGahee, good bye. See-ya. Addios.

Without Yanda, however, the Ravens don't have a starting right guard or right tackle. They also need to find a fullback and a backup quarterback as well.

Yanda, though, should come first, because the former Iowa standout deserves a raise and his versatility will command a top salary on the open market.

But the Ravens shouldn't go overboard. We're not talking Jonathan Ogden here.

We're talking about a good, hard-nosed player who never complains and plays well in a box for short-yardage situations and blocking straight ahead.

Yanda doesn't pull extremely well, and isn't that effective in the open field on tosses and screens. He lacks the size to be a power tackle, and those short arms limit him in going against speed rushers.

But you can't deny his strong work ethic and loyalty. Besides, the Ravens, like every team in the NFL, are working on a reduced time schedule. Yanda knows the system and continuity is a key.

If they can re-sign Yanda, they can pencil third-year player Michael Oher in at left tackle, and allow fourth–year player Oniel Cousins and Central Florida rookie Jai Reed to battle for the right tackle spot. If neither can nail down the starting position -- and they probably won't -- then the Ravens can fall back on Yanda and find a right guard.

If Yanda's demands are too high, the Ravens have options in Bushrod (Towson University ) or Colon, and that's a really good tackle combination with Oher. Colon was the Steelers' best blocker in 2009 before missing all of 2010 with a torn Achilles'.

The Ravens also have to make a decision on guard/center Chris Chester, a fifth-year player out of Oklahoma who will also become a free agent. Actually, this one is a no-brainer. Chester is too light to play guard, and he spent a lot of last season being tossed back into Flacco's lap in pass protection. They should bring him back as a backup to starting center Matt Birk, and if he disagrees, the Ravens should allow him to seek employment elsewhere.

The Ravens also have to find a No. 2 quarterback. Marc Bulger, the backup from a year ago, is a free agent and still an option, but he is in a great position. He can take his time in making a decision.

Bulger is still good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but also savvy enough to pick a team where he can compete for a Super Bowl title and not worry about getting physically abused the way he did in St. Louis.

The question is: Does Bulger want to be a starter or a backup?

After Bulger, there probably won't be a lot of quality backups to pick from.

The Ravens should have more success in finding a fullback. There are indications that the Ravens want to become old-school again and play smash-mouth football the way they did in Harbaugh's first season.

If that's the case, they'll need a fullback. Forget about Le'Ron McClain. He'll test the free-agent market because he wants to be more of a featured running back. He can't get that type of time in Baltimore behind Rice.

And McClain isn't the crash-dummy type the Ravens prefer. They want someone like the Houston Texans' Vonta Leach, but he might be out of the Ravens' price range. They'll have to settle with someone such as the Cleveland Brown's Lawrence Vickers, who might be more affordable now that the Ravens made cuts Monday.

Newsome will be scurrying around looking for a pass rusher, but they're hard to find in the draft and even tougher in free agency. With some of the recaptured wealth, don't be surprised if the Ravens make a serious early run at Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

But that won't be the Ravens' most pressing need. On paper, it appears the Ravens need to improve their passing game. But you can't throw if you can't protect the quarterback.

The Ravens have to protect their top investments on offense in Flacco and Rice. They've got to upgrade the offensive line.


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