Other than Alex Collins' emergence, not a whole lot went right for the Ravens offense last season. Why do you think the front office is so focused on that side of the ball this offseason?
But very quietly, an offensive triumph of no small consequence did occur in 2017. It happened up front, where the line posted positive grades despite a debilitating set of injuries and other subtractions.
If you recall, the line underwent a near-complete transformation before the 2017 season when center Jeremy Zuttah was cut, tackle Rick Wagner departed via free agency and guard Alex Lewis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. When All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, it was widely believed the line was a lost cause along with the Ravens' playoff hopes.
Some tough moments did ensue, but the line eventually melded into an effective unit. It allowed fewer sacks than the year before and spearheaded the running game's rise to a No. 11 league ranking from No. 28 the year before. Remarkably, NFL Next Gen Stats graded it as the league's fourth-most effective line.
A year later, the unit is experiencing more transition with center Ryan Jensen departing via free agency and tackle Austin Howard getting cut. But this year, there's more optimism than concern about where the line is headed. Yanda and Lewis are returning, as are James Hurst and Matt Skura, who helped steady the unit last year. Rookie tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was drafted No. 83 overall last month.
Is it fair to expect an even better line in 2018? I think so. But that assessment is based on the general assumption that there's enough talent to go around. We still don't know how some of the particulars will shake out, and at this point, questions abound. Let's dig into them.
Who replaces Ryan Jensen?
Whoever it is will become the Ravens' third starting center in three years. Obviously, continuity is preferable. Skura is the No. 1 right now, but if the Ravens are intent on fielding their "best five," Lewis could replace him. The Ravens also drafted a center, Bradley Bozeman, with a sixth-round pick.
Can Marshal Yanda pick up where he left off?
It will be a huge plus if the team's best player returns at his customary level, steadying the entire unit. No one doubts he's doing everything he can to make that happen, but he'll turn 34 in September and his major surgery history (shoulder, ankle) is starting to add up.
Is Orlando Brown Jr. ready to play right away?**
The Ravens don't draft a lineman this high without expecting him to start. But whether he needs a year of seasoning could determine who plays several positions this year. If Brown isn't ready, Hurst is probably the right tackle, Lewis the left guard. If Brown is ready, Hurst could slide to left guard and Lewis could play center, or Lewis could play left guard with Hurst in a utility role.
Where is James Hurst best deployed?
The Ravens retained him because he's durable, versatile and adaptable. He came into his own as a left guard in 2017 and that's probably his best position; he can still struggle against some edge rushers when playing tackle. But that's probably where he'll line up in 2018 if Brown isn't ready to play right away.
Where is Alex Lewis best deployed?
His best position probably is left guard, where he excelled as a rookie in 2016. But he could also play center or even right tackle. Wherever he lines up, the Ravens hope he isn't impacted by having taken an entire year off.
Does Ronnie Stanley have another level?
The left tackle was strong in his second pro season, allowing just 1.5 sacks in 15 games without being called for a single holding penalty. But the Ravens would love to see their highest draft pick since 2000 become as dominant as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey, the players drafted right before him in 2016.
Can Nico Siragusa reinsert himself in the puzzle?
Drafted just one round later than Brown (a year earlier), he was originally projected as part of the Ravens' long-range plan to remake their O-line into a bigger, more physical unit. A major knee injury early in training camp derailed him. The Ravens would love to see him back in the mix.