This time last year, there were a lot of questions about who the Ravens’ starting center would ultimately become and rumblings that Baltimore should sign a veteran free agent.
Ryan Jensen stepped up, going from a career backup to full-time starter to the highest-paid center in the league.
With Jensen’s free agency exit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Ravens are now back in a similar position with an opening in the middle of the offensive line. So who could be this year’s Jensen?
The leading candidate is Matt Skura, and he's ready for his shot at the job with Organized Team Activities set to kick off next week.
“[Jensen] and I kind of had a similar story,” Skura said. “Hopefully I’m the guy they feel comfortable with moving into that position.”
Jensen was a Ravens sixth-round pick in 2013. He spent much of his second season on the practice squad and was a backup in 2015 and 2016. Jensen made nine starts because of injuries those two years before taking over full-time last offseason following Jeremy Zuttah’s release.
Skura went undrafted in 2016 and spent his first season on the Ravens practice squad. He was again placed on the practice squad at the end of training camp last year, but was called up to the 53-man roster before the Week 3 game in London.
The Ravens needed a new right guard after perennial Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda fractured his ankle. Skura figured he would be mostly used on special teams for his first game. Instead, he was thrust into Yanda’s starting spot.
“It happened really fast and there wasn’t much time to process, but sometimes being thrown into the fire is the best way to do it,” Skura said.
Skura was a four-year starter at center for Duke. Playing right guard was totally new. Still, he adapted, battled through a knee injury and ended up starting 12 games. Overall, the Ravens offensive line still held strong despite its best player’s absence. According to Pro Football Focus, Skura gave up just one sack all season.
“I knew I just had to be me. I couldn’t try to be Marshal,” Skura said.
Now Skura is faced with trying to replace another strong player in Jensen, who gained a lot of fans in Baltimore not only with his strong play, but his physical demeanor after he blasted Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso for hitting sliding quarterback Joe Flacco.
Once again, Skura can only be himself. He prides himself on his film study, which he says slows the game down because he picks up on defensive linemen’s tendencies and how to identify blitzing linebackers. He’s technically sound and has good size at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds (he’s added bulk).
Still, there’s a part to Jensen’s game that Skura wants to add.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the first person to be in a fight like Jensen was,” Skura said with a chuckle. “But seeing the way he played made me want to play like that as well – having that nastier mentality and finishing blocks downfield. It does intimidate people and a lot of guys really aren’t prepared to play like that from the first snap to the end of the game.”
Skura said the transition from guard back to center is like riding a bike. After four years doing it in college, it’s what he’s more accustomed to. And now with a fair amount of game experience under his belt, he has a better understanding of NFL speed, schemes and the jobs of the blockers around him.
The Ravens’ only other centers on the roster are sixth-round pick Bradley Bozeman (Alabama) and undrafted rookie Alex Thompson. Alex Lewis could be an option, but Head Coach John Harbaugh said he would prefer to use him at guard next to Ronnie Stanley.
“It’s a really good opportunity for me to showcase to the coaches that I can be that leader on the offensive line and make the calls to direct guys where to go,” Skura said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”