I recently heard a story about a Ravens player that I can't seem to forget.
Heading to the gym at the Under Armour Performance Center for some after-hours exercise one evening, a front office staffer came across a player in the midst of a weight training session. But not just any session. The player, alone in the gym in the gathering dusk, was lifting huge amounts at a rat-a-tat pace, his grunts and the clanging weights combining to make a fearsome commotion in the vast room.
The session lasted for as long as the front office staffer was in the gym and ended with the player lying on the floor, sweaty and spent.
The player was Kelechi Osemele, the 330-pound offensive guard in his fourth season with the Ravens.
Even before I heard that story about his strength and drive, I had targeted Osemele as a young Raven who could be poised for an especially bright season in 2015. He is 26, entering his prime, a year further removed from the back surgery that cut short his 2013 season, and coming off a 2014 season in which he received high grades as one of the top performers on the Ravens offensive line.
The stage is set for him, it appears. Osemele and veteran Marshal Yanda – the NFL's most effective offensive lineman a year ago, according to the Pro Football Focus website – could comprise the league's top guard tandem in 2015.
The caveat, as you may know, is both players are entering the final year of their contracts and could become free agents after next season, prompting speculation that one is bound to depart – Osemele, most likely, or so I've repeatedly read.
Oh, I understand the thinking. With both players due big paydays and Yanda, a rugged All-Pro and locker room leader, deservedly at the head of the line, that leaves Osemele in a bit of limbo. With a salary cap in place, a team can invest only so much in its guards, right?
But I'm not necessarily buying that doom-and-gloom scenario.
Who says one must go?
Yanda didn't seem worried about striking a new deal when he was asked about it at last month's minicamp; I'm guessing it will eventually happen. And if Osemele is as effective as the Ravens expect in 2015, retaining him could become their top priority.
Strong offensive line play was one of their cornerstones in 2014; sacks of quarterback Joe Flacco fell dramatically and the rushing game boomed. More years of such effectiveness up front could go a long way toward helping the Ravens remain consistent playoff contenders, and keeping their best guys obviously is key to that.
With that in mind, I actually can't think of a more prudent way for the Ravens to exhaust some of their precious salary cap space. They're always deciding whether to retain young players who warrant a "second contract," receivers and linebackers and running backs and such, but my two cents, no positional piece is a sounder investment than a talented young blocker. Any team that wants to go far needs to be strong up front.
Sure, the Ravens would have to wave their hands and perform a bit of salary cap magic to clear space for both Yanda and Osemele. It's going to be a challenge. But they're always up against the cap ceiling and accustomed to finding ways to keep players they really want. Remember, Flacco is likely to restructure his big deal before next season, freeing up some room that isn't currently available.
The Ravens have watched a bunch of valuable young players depart in recent years because of the cap's stringent dictates, but they do endeavor to keep the ones they deem especially irreplaceable. A few years ago, Owner Steve Bisciotti explained that the goal is to pay talented "ascending" players.
That's certainly an appropriate description for Osemele, who started every game of the Ravens' Super Bowl run as a rookie in 2012 and has only gotten better.
He could be tough to keep, but I'm guessing the Ravens will go all-in to try.