This offseason, the Ravens offensive line was the unit that caused the most fingernail biting around Baltimore.
After Alex Lewis went down in training camp, then All-Pro Marshal Yanda's season ended in Week 2, Ravens fans went full-scale red alert.
But as the Ravens take stock on their bye-week break, they can look at their offensive line with three former undrafted rookie free agents and four new full-time starters and be relatively pleased.
"They played pretty darn well all year," Head Coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "All in all, I'm happy with the offensive line."
Perhaps nobody epitomizes the story of the Ravens offensive line more than left guard James Hurst, who has taken plenty of criticism from pundits and fans over the years, yet stands as a regular starter and key cog.
Hurst was an undrafted rookie in 2014. He stands as one five players – both drafted and undrafted – still with the team from that year, joining linebacker C.J. Mosley, tight end Crockett Gillmore (injured reserve), defensive end Brent Urban (IR) and wide receiver/returner Michael Campanaro. Behind Mosley, Hurst has made the second-most starts in purple and black from that class.
Hurst was thrown into the fire at left tackle – one of the most difficult positions on the field – as an undrafted rookie. He started seven games, including two in the playoffs.
In 2015, he started eight games and was the guy who fell backwards into Joe Flacco's knee, ending the quarterback's season. Two days later, when Hurst went into the locker room to apologize, Flacco told him not to worry about it. Injuries are an unavoidable part of playing football, the quarterback said.
"That feels like forever ago, which is probably a good thing," Hurst said. "I've moved on from it."
Hurst continued to find his way onto the field as a backup. The Ravens drafted Ronnie Stanley to be their franchise left tackle, but Hurst started just three games last year when Stanley was hurt and late in the season at right tackle.
When Rick Wagner left in free agency this offseason, Baltimore decided to flip Hurst to right tackle and give him a shot at a starting job. He played every snap at right tackle for much of the summer before Lewis' injury, which forced a shift to left guard, a position Hurst had never played before in his life.
After just a few weeks practicing there, he was the Ravens' Week 1 starter and hasn't let up.
It hasn't been perfect, but last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, Hurst had perhaps his best game yet. His 77.6 mark from Pro Football Focus (PFF) was the second-highest grade on the offense.
According to PFF, Hurst has given up one sack and 10 quarterback hurries in nine games. He has progressively improved as the season has gone on.
"I love having James out there," Flacco added. "I think he's always done a good job. Back in 2014, he had to fill in a bunch for us and he played his butt off as a rookie. I have a lot of confidence in what James is doing out there. He's a confident guy who knows what he's doing."
Hurst has had to totally change his game from playing left tackle to right tackle and and now to left guard. Each of those positions requires different techniques and movements. At guard, he's had to bulk up and add more power.
In Senior Offensive Assistant Greg Roman's run scheme, the Ravens have often asked Hurst to pull and be a lead blocker. Hurst has pulled more than 60 times in nine games, which is a drastic change from what he did at tackle and speaks to the Ravens' confidence in him.
"I enjoy the small victories, just being able to play, getting an opportunity to start, being relied on by your teammates and be counted on week in and week out," Hurst said. "Obviously, it's always easier if you're in the same position, but at the end of the day, I'm just grateful for this opportunity."
Hurst isn't the only new starter on the offensive lineman that has stepped up to the occasion.
Center Ryan Jensen, who had started just nine games in his previous four seasons, stands as one of the highest graded NFL centers by PFF through the first nine games of this season.
Right guard Matt Skura, who spent last season on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie, has stabilized the position after the loss of Yanda. He's no Yanda, but his two-game absence because of a knee injury was felt in losses to the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
Harbaugh said the offensive line has had its ups and downs. It didn't play as well against the Titans as it did versus the Miami Dolphins, for example. But the general trend has been in the right direction.
"I think they're doing a good job," Harbaugh said. "But, they have to be better for the next seven weeks for us to do the things that we want to do."