How can the Ravens help Lamar Jackson? It starts up front

Lamar Jackson was sacked a career-worst 38 times last season. Joe Sargent/Getty Images

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens are unsure when a contract extension will get completed with quarterback Lamar Jackson, saying talks will take place at his pace.

But the Ravens made it clear what’s in their control: a plan to get their Pro Bowl quarterback and offense back on track.

In their season-ending news conferences, both general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh stressed the offense line is a “point of emphasis” this offseason -- and for good reason. When Jackson was the NFL’s unanimous NFL MVP in 2019, Baltimore had the league’s second-best offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus. When Jackson produced his most disappointing season last year, the Ravens had the NFL’s 21st-ranked offensive line.

“For us to be the very best offense we can be, we have to have a strong, commanding offensive line that can control people at the point of attack,” DeCosta said.

In 2019, Jackson led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and set the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,206) behind an offensive line that featured two Pro Bowl tackles (Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.) and a potential Hall of Fame guard (Marshal Yanda).

Last season, Jackson totaled career worsts in interceptions (13) and sacks (38) while working with an offensive line that included the league’s worst pass-protecting left tackle (Alejandro Villanueva), pedestrian play at left guard and a rotation at right tackle.

DeCosta said it’s possible Baltimore will add two offensive linemen this offseason. Although DeCosta didn’t specifically name positions, it’s presumed the Ravens will bring in a center and offensive tackle. He mentioned the Ravens are open to bringing in offensive linemen in a variety of ways, whether it’s selecting one with the No. 14 overall pick in the first round, acquiring one through a trade or signing one who’s been cut by another team.

"We’re a physical team,” DeCosta said. "I think one of the more satisfying things is when you have the lead in the fourth quarter, and you can control the ball for seven minutes and end the game running the football down the field. You’ve seen us do that. I like the idea of it being balanced. Being able to push people off the ball, that’s a good thing. Being a strong, physical offensive line that can run the ball effectively and also protect the quarterback, that’s a good thing.”

For one of the few times in Ravens history, the team is set at most of the skill positions. Baltimore has one of the top young quarterbacks in the game (Jackson), an All-Pro tight end (Mark Andrews), two flashy first-round wide receivers (Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman) and a couple of efficient running backs coming off season-ending injuries (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards).

The majority of the offseason work for Baltimore is up front.

"You win and lose in the trenches, and that’s where it starts,” Harbaugh said. "Yes, you’ve got to have playmakers … but no skill player can do anything without the lines in front of them doing that work. So, to me, and in our offense especially, it’s just critically important that we have a really good offensive line.”

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the offensive line:

Left tackle: The downward domino effect for the Ravens started with the loss of Stanley, who was unable to return from a left ankle injury that sidelined him in 2020. Stanley struggled in the season opener and was then placed on injured reserve for a second straight season.

DeCosta said it was his mistake to expect Stanley to come back at full strength.

"My understanding and belief was that Ronnie would come back this year and play really good football for us, be healthy, be strong and be ready to go, and he wasn’t,” DeCosta said. "That was a big setback.”

When Stanley was injured in 2020, the Ravens were able to fill the void with Brown. When Stanley got hurt last year, Baltimore was forced to go with Villanueva, who led the NFL with 17 sacks allowed. The Ravens can save $6 million in salary cap room by cutting Villanueva.

DeCosta said he’s “optimistic” about Stanley returning to his All-Pro form, but Baltimore has to have a better contingency plan this season.

Left guard: It was disappointing that much-hyped rookie Ben Cleveland was unable to take over this spot until Ben Powers injured his toe in Week 13. Powers was effective in the run game (sixth-best among guards in run block win rate) and a liability in pass protection (40th among guards in pass block win rate).

Over the past two years, the Ravens invested third-round picks in Cleveland and Tyre Phillips. Both have struggled to remain healthy, but Baltimore has to be hoping one can take hold of left guard in 2022.

“We’ve got some young guys at guard coming along,” Harbaugh said. "Ben Cleveland played really well the last game -- that was good to see. Ben Powers played well until he got hurt at the end. And then we’ve just got to keep Tyre healthy. Every time he starts to gain momentum, something happens. [He’s] a very talented guy, but he needs time on task, and if he does, what’s going to happen with him?”

Center: Bradley Bozeman solidified this position in his first season as a full-time NFL starting center, although Baltimore probably want his snaps in the pistol to be more consistent. Bozeman is the Ravens’ top unrestricted free agent, and he could get over $10 million per season, which might place him out of the Ravens’ price range. After the season, Bozeman sounded like someone who knows he might not return, getting teary-eyed when asked about his future.

"We’ll let our agents handle all the back-end stuff, and we’ll see what happens,” Bozeman said. "I’ve been very blessed. It’s been a great place for me.”

If Bozeman doesn’t return, Baltimore could bring back Ryan Jensen, who played the last four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with that same nasty streak he showed with the Ravens (2014-17). Another fallback option is moving back Patrick Mekari to center. Mekari, who signed a three-year, $15.4 million extension, can play all five spots on the offensive line and started at right tackle last year.

Right guard: This is the one spot along the offense line where there are no questions. Kevin Zeitler returns after being the Ravens’ top free-agent signing last offseason. He allowed one sack and 17 quarterback pressures all season, according to PFF. A portrait of durability, Zeitler led all offensive linemen with 1,241 snaps last season.

Right tackle: The Ravens have to strongly consider drafting an offensive tackle in the early rounds to possibly start immediately at right tackle or move to left tackle if Stanley is unable to rebound from his ankle injury again. Mekari could continue to start at right tackle, but he would be an extremely valuable sixth man at every spot along the line.

Baltimore did sign experienced right tackle Ja'Wuan James last year while he rehabbed from an Achilles injury, and this potentially could develop into a shrewd move. But James has only played in three games since 2019, so it would be risky for the Ravens to count on him for a full season, especially after last season’s revolving door here (four players with at least 60 snaps at right tackle).

If a few moves are made and some returning players step up, Baltimore not only has a chance of fixing the offensive line next season but providing a stable foundation in front of Jackson for years to come.

"I’ve been a part of a couple O-lines [offensive lines] where it’s shuffled from year to year,” Zeitler said. "There’s truth to it that it takes time for an O-line to build rapport with each other and figure each other out, what everyone can do, how they do it. Eventually, everyone figures it out. In my personal opinion, whenever you can get as many guys to stay on a line together that have been together, it does make an impact. But just like you said, change is inevitable."